What Else Was at Stake?

American voters were deciding more than the presidency in yesterday’s election.


President Bush has officially won a narrow reelection and Republicans have picked up seats in both the House and Senate, with more potential gains in Florida and Alaska. Not to be the bearer of worse news, but the ballot initiatives and amendments throughout the country amount to an overwhelming tide against progressive causes; and a powerful wave of conservative activism has swept its way into red as well a blue states and even bluer cities.

There are some important victories, true, but mostly what these ballot measures and amendments reveal is a country deeply hostile to gay marriage and civil unions, immigrant rights, abortion rights, prison reform, and greater access to health care. So here’s the run-down of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” as a reminder that more was at stake last night than the presidency. In the interest of optimism, we’ll start with the bad and ugly.

The Bad and the Ugly…

California progressives lost on a number of important ballot measures that Governor Schwarzenegger aggressively campaigned to defeat. Proposition 66, which amended the law to allow a life sentence only if a person is convicted of a third felony that is violent or serious would have reformed the archaic “three strikes and you’re out,” narrowly lost. Proposition 72, which required companies to provide health insurance to employees, was also defeated. The governor and former body-builder was in high spirits last night:

“This is what I love about election-day. Because when the people flex their muscles, then the state gets much stronger. And tonight they’ve sent their message.”

Illegal immigrants were also big losers last night. Voters in Arizona passed Proposition 200, which would deny services to illegal immigrants and require government employees to report, by law, undocumented workers to authorities. Conservative supporters argued that it saves the state money and send a message that illegal immigrants are not welcome. At the “Yes on Proposition 200 party,” J.T. Ready, a campaign volunteer, captured the nativist sentiment of many southwestern conservatives:

“This is going to send a resounding message to the federal government. We citizens are sick of them turning their heads to illegal immigration.”

The proposition drew widespread criticism, from Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano to Republican Senator John McCain. But in a campaign that urged voters to “do something about illegal immigration,” the politics of fear and ignorance swept more than just the presidential election.

Unfortunately, Arizona was not the only state to enact anti-immigrant legislation. Even in San Francisco plenty of folks voted against according “illegal” immigrant parents voting rights in local school elections. Although the measure failed in a narrow election, it speaks volumes that in a city that supports Kerry, Senator Barbara Boxer, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi with over 80 percent of the vote, a basic right for these parents is voted down. It’s getting ugly when progressive initiatives are beat up in our own backyard.

Finally, gay marriage and civil unions suffered the most resounding defeat of all. In the eleven states that voted on these measures, gay rights took devastating hit after hit. Even in Oregon, which represented gay-rights groups’ best hope for victory, the amendment banning same-sex marriage prevailed with 57 percent of the vote. Similar bans won by much larger margins in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah. And more legislation is on the way. Matt Daniels, of Alliance for Marriage, has pushed for congressional action and believes that these state victories “are a prelude to the real battle,” stating that “ultimately, only our Federal Marriage Amendment will protect marriage.” Many are already arguing that this issue cost Kerry the presidency and the battles over gay marriage appear far from over as conservative Christians and others gear up to insert anti-gay discrimination into the Constitution.

And the Good…

First, Californians voted to support stem cell research at the tune of $3 billion, spread out in annual installments of $300 million, by a strong margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. Proposition 71 challenges the president, and the legion of conservative Christians, on a vulnerable issue and will hopefully provide the first battle in any imminent culture war.

And, despite Govenator Arnold’s opposition, Proposition 61, which authorizes the state to issue $750 million in bonds for construction, expansion and renovation of children’s hospital; and Proposition 63, which expands funding of public mental health programs by adding a 1% surcharge on incomes of more than $1 million a year, both passed.

Second, even though Bush won Florida and it appears that Mel Martinez captured Bob Graham’s vacated seat, progressives scored a win in Florida in raising the minimum wage. Amendment 5, which protects all employees in the state covered by the federal minimum wage, increases the hourly wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour within six months and thereafter is indexed to inflation each year. The amendment received over 70 percent of the vote in a resounding victory. Even though this doesn’t begin to establish a living wage in the state, the progressive coalition in Florida (labor, women’s rights, and poor rights advocates) is commended for an impressive victory against the business/retail/chamber of commerce machine and intense opposition from Martinez, the president, and Governor Jeb Bush.

And let’s score a mini victory for medical marijuana. Voters in Montana approved a measure to allow medical marijuana use, joining Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington as states that have passed measures approving medical marijuana. The vote was well over 60 percent and, according to Paul Befumo, a leader in campaigning for the measure, passage was “just common sense” for Montana voters: “I’m really thankful to Montana. I think we did something good for ourselves, our neighbors and relatives who are sick.”

A similar amendment passed in Ann Arbor yesterday — joining Detroit in support of medical marijuana — making Michigan the next likely state to vote on the issue.

And all is not lost as conservatives celebrate the gay marriage bans. Some important victories occurred in the most unlikely of places. In Massachusetts, despite conservative efforts to unseat them, all incumbent legislators who supported equal treatment for same-sex couples won re-election. In Cincinnati, the nation’s only city with a ban on laws supporting gay rights, voters repealed that 1993 measure. And in Idaho and North Carolina voters elected their first openly gay legislators, while an openly gay Latino woman, Lupe Valdez, was elected county sheriff in Dallas. These “wins” seem small given the disappointment of so many election races, from the presidency to city ballot initiatives, but they might mark the early shift in the ebb and flow of a nation dreadfully lost at sea.