Look to states’ ballot measures to find Democratic wins

Tuesday was a great night for Democrats — on the issues.

Sure, Democratic candidates got shellacked, clobbered, whipped, walloped — pick your metaphor — in Tuesday’s election. But voters also passed judgment on dozens of ballot measures, and the news there was much better. On issues that Democrats traditionally champion — minimum wage, gun safety, abortion rights, voting rights, environmental protection, paid sick leave and criminal justice reform — they came out on top.

Voters in four states that went with Mitt Romney in 2012 — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — approved minimum-wage increases. That should help make it easier for Republicans to support a modest minimum-wage hike in the next Congress. In San Francisco and Oakland, ballot measures to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour passed by wide margins, giving Democrats a further boost.

Voters in Washington state approved a measure requiring all gun sales to be accompanied by background checks, a law that the Democratic-led Senate failed to pass in the wake of the shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Washington voters also defeated a competing amendment, pushed by the gun-rights organizations, which aimed to prevent more checks. Polling shows that background checks have broad support across parties and gun owners, and the Washington referendum may embolden other states to take similar action.

In addition, Colorado’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, who pushed for and won universal background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines, appears to have eked out a victory despite steady attacks from the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups.

On abortion, voters in Colorado and North Dakota rejected state constitutional amendments that defined human life as beginning at conception — a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. The Colorado measure would have changed its criminal code to treat the unborn as children. A ballot measure in Tennessee granting the state legislature explicit authority to regulate abortion passed, but the state will have to stay within the bounds of Roe.

Voters in Connecticut and Missouri rejected proposals to allow early voting, but the Missouri defeat was a victory for voting-rights advocates who saw it as a sham. (Proponents of the Connecticut measure could not have chosen less favorable wording for the ballot.) Illinois voters passed a largely symbolic voting-rights amendment to their state constitution, but the more important ballot-access test came in Montana, where voters defeated a proposal to end same-day voter registration.

Ballot measures to protect the environment also fared well. Voters in Florida adopted a constitutional amendment designed to increase water and land conservation. Louisiana voters supported a fund for artificial reef development. In California and Rhode Island, voters passed bond measures allowing the state to borrow on behalf of environmental protection, and a similar measure appears headed for victory in Maine. New Jersey voters passed a constitutional amendment to protect open space. Those victories more than made up for losses in North Dakota (directing oil revenue to conservation) and Massachusetts (expanding bottle deposits).

The Massachusetts ballot also included a measure requiring certain private sector employers to provide paid sick leave to their workers — an issue that is gaining traction among liberal Democrats. It passed and could become a major issue for Democrats in the 2016 presidential election. Former President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law in 1993, granting workers the right to take time off without losing their jobs. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party could push Hillary Clinton to embrace paid sick leave, if she runs for president.

Finally, voters in California passed a measure downgrading various nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors, rather than felonies, in an effort to reduce incarceration. Voters in Illinois enshrined a Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights in their constitution. Voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., approved measures legalizing marijuana, an issue that Democrats tend to embrace more than eagerly than Republicans. Voters in Oregon passed a gender-equality amendment to their state constitution. And voters in Missouri rejected a measure to ban teacher tenure and require teacher evaluations — a big win for the teachers union, a traditional Democratic ally.

Republicans had a number of important ballot measure victories, including tax caps in Georgia and Tennessee. But on the whole, even as the Democratic Party got an old-fashioned whuppin’, traditional Democratic issues had an awfully good night.

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He previously served as director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

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