Voters hurt prisoners and some workers, helped other workers, and legalized drugs and gambling
While Americans wait for results from the presidential election, verdicts on ballot measures are coming in. State constitutional amendments and statutes were up for popular vote on the ballots of 32 states this election.
Though the measures only take effect at the state and local level, the trends in these decisions speak to the direction our national politics are moving; they show where voters stand on key issues, maybe even more so than the big election.
Big Losses and Bigger Wins for Workers
Workers in at least three states woke to important news, both good and bad.
Yes on Florida Amendment 2
Florida passed Amendment 2, which will eventually raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour. Florida is the eighth state to do so, and the first red state to join a group that includes California, New York, and Massachusetts. For workers in Florida, the benefits won’t be immediate: the minimum wage will increase to $10 in 2021, then rise one dollar per year until it finally reaches $15 in 2026, by which point inflation will have eaten away some of its value. Florida’s current minimum wage is $8.56, a rate activists say forces employees of the state’s profitable tourism industry to live in their cars.
The minimum wage amendment passed with the support of 60.8% of Florida voters. In a state where President Trump took 51.2% of the vote, this clear majority might come as a surprise—but it shouldn’t. Since striking fast-food employees brought the demand for a $15 minimum wage to national prominence in 2012, the proposal has won the support of two-thirds of Americans. Many economists also support the increase, noting that the inflation-adjusted value of the $7.25 federal minimum has fallen by $1.44 in the 11 years since it was last raised.
Yes on Colorado Proposition 118
In Colorado, voters approved another overwhelmingly popular policy: paid family and medical leave. Passed with 57% of the vote, Proposition 118 guarantees up to 12 weeks of leave for all workers, even those who are self-employed or work in the gig economy. Nationwide, only 19% of workers have paid family leave and 40% have paid medical leave—making the U.S. a global outlier. Almost all other wealthy countries provide paid family and medical leave, with many European nations offering new parents more than 40 weeks of time off.
Yes on California Proposition 22
Each of these ballot initiatives faced stiff opposition from business interests. And in California, that opposition won out, as Proposition 22 passed following a $200 million campaign by Silicon Valley giants—the most expensive in the history of the state. The disastrous plebiscite classifies drivers for apps such as Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and Instacart as independent contractors, rather than employees, overruling a 2019 California law. Labor unions fought fiercely against this seemingly minor change, which would exempt drivers from paid sick leave, unemployment compensation, the right to collective bargaining, and even the state minimum wage.
More than anything, this campaign laid bare the extreme precarity to which gig apps subject their employees. The companies forced workers to distribute pro-Prop 22 materials, bombarded riders with propaganda through their apps, and eventually delivered an ultimatum: If the proposition were to fail, Uber and Lyft would shut down their California operations. Hollow threat or not, the bluff worked.
Just say yes
On every drug-related ballot initiative of 2020, voters said yes.
The war on drugs continues to destroy lives—with a disproportionately negative effect on Black and Latino/a communities. It has also ensured that the United States has the highest prison population in the world. This election, voters condemned criminalizing users and acknowledged the potential medical benefits of certain drugs.
Yes on New Jersey Question 1, Montana Initiative 190, Arizona Proposition 207, South Dakota Amendment A and measure 26, and Mississippi Initiative 65
Five states said yes to weed. New Jersey, Montana, Arizona, and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana possession and use, making recreational cannabis legal in 15 states and DC. South Dakotans also voted to establish a medical marijuana program, making the state the first to legalize medical and recreational weed in the same election. In Mississippi, voters chose to legalize medical marijuana, selecting the activist-led Initiative 65, which will allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for a number of conditions by August 2021, over the more conservative Alternative 65A put on the ballot by the legislature—which wouldn’t have set a deadline, would have left many details up to the legislature, and would have restricted treatment to terminally ill people.
Despite the win for weed, these measures are a mixed bag for those previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses in states where recreational marijuana will now be legal. Montana’s ballot measure is the only one of the four recreational marijuana legalization measures that specifically allows for those previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses to seek resentencing. Montana’s and Arizona’s measures both allow those convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes to apply for expungement of their criminal record. New Jersey established an expedited expungement path for small marijuana-related charges earlier this year, before legalizing the drug. By contrast, South Dakota’s ballot initiative failed to establish a path to expungement. Creating such a process would require further action from the South Dakota state legislature. Between 2009 and 2018, 31,883 individuals were arrested for marijuana in South Dakota, and from 2007 to 2018, Native American and Black South Dakotans were arrested for marijuana at over five times the rate of white South Dakotans. It is clear that paths to resentencing and expungement of marijuana-related convictions are necessary to help rebuild thousands of lives and combat systemic racism.
Yes on Oregon Measure 110
With Measure 110, Oregon voters decriminalized small-scale possession and use of all drugs (yes, all of them). Now, instead of potentially facing years in prison, people caught with “non-commercial” amounts of any drug—including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, psychedelics, and MDMA—face the equivalent of a parking ticket, with a maximum fine of $100 or a completed health assessment and no criminal record. The measure also establishes addiction recovery centers, to be funded in part by the money that will be saved on policing and incarceration as a result of the decriminalization of these substances and in part by the state’s marijuana tax revenue. This is a big and unprecedented step toward expanding access to drug treatment and reducing state-inflicted harm to those struggling with addiction.
Yes on Oregon Measure 109
In addition to decriminalizing all drugs, Oregon legalized the therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms for the first time in the United States, with Measure 109. Psilocybin is still nationally classified as a Schedule I drug despite research that suggests the drug can help those struggling with depression, anxiety addiction, PTSD, and other mental illnesses. Oregon’s measure—which allows for the legal use of psilocybin at a licensed facility in the presence of a licensed therapist—could hopefully expand research possibilities and show the rest of the nation the absurdity of the classification of psilocybin as a Schedule I drug.
Yes on DC Initiative 81
Similarly to Oregon, Washington, DC voters passed Initiative 81 in an effort to effectively decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi—including psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, DMT, and ayahuasca. While the initiative does nothing to actually change the criminal punishments related to such substances in DC, the intention is that Washington will stop investigating and prosecuting such crimes. The initiative places the non-commercial cultivation, possession, and use of these substances among the lowest police enforcement priorities, and makes a non-binding call upon the attorney general to halt the prosecution of DC residents for such actions.
Criminal justice: stuck in a rut
The non-drug criminal justice measures on the ballots fell into two categories, which, as a summary of the issue, form a somewhat underwhelming picture: those more or less limited to symbolic value, and those whose outcomes maintain the status quo.
No on California Proposition 20
Californians rejected a measure that would create harsher sentencing and reduce parole. Backed by a pro-law enforcement group, the measure would have expanded the list of violent felonies to disqualify more prisoners from early release; added third-time theft of a value of $250 or more to the category of felony theft; required parole boards to consider past offenses and to hold hearings for potential revocation of parole whenever a parolee breaks their terms for a third time; and resumed DNA collection for crimes that had been reclassified as misdemeanors. This measure would have rolled back criminal justice reforms that passed by ballot measure in 2014 and 2016. Fortunately, the reactionary sentiment hasn’t carried the day in California.
No on California Proposition 25
At first glance, it seems like California had the chance to become the first state to end cash bail and blew it. One more look, and it becomes clear the state escaped what may shockingly have been an even worse policy. California Proposition 25, if it had passed, would have upheld Senate Bill 10, eliminating cash bail and implementing a risk assessment calculation in its place. But risk assessment algorithms applied to the criminal justice system have been shown to reproduce racial bias, masking it and legitimizing its effects with the supposed neutrality of science.
No on Oklahoma State Question 805
Meanwhile, by a vote of about 69% to 31%, Oklahoma rejected a proposition to reduce harsh sentencing for non-violent felonies. The measure would have prohibited and retroactively cancelled sentence enhancements, wherein people’s past non-violent felony convictions are used as grounds to increase their sentences for subsequent offenses of this kind.
Yes on Nebraska Amendment 1 and Utah Constitutional Amendment C
Nebraska and Utah just abolished slavery. It’s 2020 and both states’ constitutions are now finally free of the slavery exception—a clause that protects slavery and involuntary servitude as a feature of the penal system. About time. The first and only other state to do this was Colorado, where a similar ballot measure passed in 2018.
Of course, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution still stands: It bans slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime.”
The Utah and Nebraska amendments reaffirm values fundamentally inconsistent with this exploitation of incarcerated people, but appear to be only symbolic. Proponents have framed the changes as getting rid of a vestige of slavery but not as direct legal threats to any elements of the carceral system that has evolved from that institution, such as the practice of extremely low-wage prison labor. Frighteningly, even the symbolic impact was not a foregone conclusion, with over 19% of reported ballots in Utah and nearly 32% in Nebraska cast against the amendments.
Jackpot for gamblers
Gambling—and the governments that tax it when possible—won big in Tuesday’s ballot measures. Between this and the drugs, the Puritans must be rolling in their graves.
Yes on Colorado Amendment C
Colorado has made getting and using a charitable gaming license easier. The time a nonprofit must exist before running charitable games is down from five years to three. After this wait, nonprofits can raise money through bingo, pull-tab games, and raffles, and can hire minimum-wage workers to manage and run these activities.
Yes on Maryland Question 2 and South Dakota Constitutional Amendment B
Maryland has approved a new source of funding for its public schools: sports and events betting at licensed facilities. Meanwhile, South Dakotans authorized sports betting in the city of Deadwood, to fund the preservation of the Gold Rush town’s historic features. Before this election, sports betting had been legal in 13 other states.
Yes, yes, and yes on Nebraska Initiatives 429-431
These three Nebraska initiatives set up racetrack gambling. The first allows gaming at licensed horse tracks; the second enables the state to regulate the gambling; and the third levies a 20% tax on the revenue from the gambling. The third measure also requires that 70% of the tax money go to the Property Tax Credit Cash Fund, which provides property tax relief, 25% to the local governments of municipalities where the licensed racetracks are located, 2.5% to Nebraska’s General Fund, and the remaining 2.5% to the Compulsive Gambler’s Assistance Fund.