Voters, Ballots… Action!

Amy Liu and
Amy Liu Headshot
Amy Liu Deputy Director - Metropolitan Policy Program

David Jackson
David Jackson Senior Communications Advisor & Policy Analyst

November 16, 2006

Americans voted for change.

At least that’s the seeming consensus emerging after the midterm elections.

But in a broad, national way—and far wider than the tight margins reflected in the change in party control of the U.S. Congress—America voted not for change for change’s sake but for action.

In governors’ races and in ballot questions coast to coast, voters cast their lot with getting things done—no matter what party at the helm. Voters called for state action on a raft of issues, often in response to the utter absence of the federal government on these very same issues.

And they did so without the consistent adherence to ideology that seems to cement gridlock in Washington.

Here, Arizona is emblematic.

While re-electing Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano to a second term, Arizona voters also had their say on 19 ballot measures, the most of any state in 2006.

With federal immigration reform still in limbo, Arizona stood firm on illegal immigration, passing measures aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from receiving certain state benefits, denying bail to illegal immigrants who commit serious felonies, and making English the official language of the state.

However, Arizona voters, also in the face of federal inaction, raised the minimum wage and indexed it to inflation, signaling support for working families.

Arizona, like many other states, reacted to the circumspect Kelo decision of the federal Supreme Court by passing a proposition restricting the use of eminent domain for private projects and requiring compensation for regulatory takings, in lockstep with property rights activists.

Finally, Arizonans felt it was not necessary to amend the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage, becoming the first state in the nation to defeat a gay marriage measure. State law there already prohibits same-sex marriage.

In sum, voters in a state that has voted for exactly one Democratic presidential nominee since the Truman administration chose to act where they felt action was needed while retaining Napolitano to work with the Republican-controlled state legislature, which she has vetoed at a record rate.

Though Arizona may be an extreme case in point, the trend for pragmatic, bipartisan problem solving is evident nationally.

In super blue California, moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was widely re-elected to a full term, while voters also approved billions of dollars in bond measures that would build affordable housing, improve roads, and strengthen the state’s levee system.

The re-election of tight-budgeting Democrat Kathleen Sibelius in red state Kansas and Republican corruption-fighter Jodi Rell in very Democratic Connecticut also support the trend. Both have used budget savings to support education. Both were re-elected by nearly 20 percentage points last Tuesday.

On ballot measures, too, voters nationally did not act with one ideology.

Though the gay marriage ban failed in Arizona, it passed in seven other states.

Yet, minimum wage measures passed in all six states where it was on the ballot and by bigger margins.

Voters in Maine, Nebraska, and Oregon also declined to handcuff their states’ spending and, by extension their capacity for action, by defeating so-called taxpayer bill of rights (TABOR) initiatives that would index budgets to population growth.

Prognosticators and politicians would be wise to look beyond the already rancorous sparring for leadership in the U.S. Capitol and instead take stock in the state capitols.

Ballot measures provide a litmus test on hot issues. When they are citizen initiated (or initiated by donors leading signature campaigns), they signal a frustration with federal or state inaction on key issues.

Likewise, the statewide ticket splitting to the benefit of proven gubernatorial pragmatists shows strong support for moderation rather than the caustic partisanship that seems to engulf Washington.

As Washington wonders how long the “honeymoon” between President Bush and the new Democratic Congress will last, they should heed the strong endorsements sent by voters: Elected leaders who eschew endless party clashes and simply get things done will be rewarded.