The Triumph of … Liberalism?

Nov. 6 1998 3:30 AM

The Triumph of … Liberalism?

What the ballot initiatives mean.

As Democrats eagerly tout their break-even performance in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races as a grand triumph, and as Republicans spin the same numbers into an affirmation of the conservative status quo, both sides are overlooking the election's most astonishing results: the ballot initiatives.

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Initiatives have made news in recent years by advancing conservative causes: limits on gay rights, immigration, and affirmative action. And there were certainly some initiatives to delight the right this year, too. Voter initiatives approved in Alaska and Hawaii banned gay marriage. An initiative in Michigan upheld a ban on assisted suicide. Initiatives in the deep South further restricted the rights of prisoners (who knew there were any restrictions left to impose?). An Alaska measure made English the state's official language. And a Washington initiative modeled on California's Proposition 209 abolished state affirmative action programs.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

But the overriding theme of the 1998 initiatives is not conservative at all. It is that American voters, at least in this complacent year, are a lot more liberal than Republican pollsters would have you believe.

Initiatives rewarded both lefty libertarians and paleoliberals. On the libertarian front, five states--Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona--put medical marijuana on the ballot, and five states approved (or in Arizona's case, re-approved) it. That means the entire Western flank of the nation now permits marijuana as medicine. Oregon voters also killed an initiative to re-criminalize marijuana possession. Initiatives in California and Missouri expanded legalized gambling, a libertarian cause increasingly embraced by Democrats. And both Colorado and Washington rejected bans on partial birth abortion.

(The Colorado abortion vote is a powerful argument against those who say that initiatives are dangerous because they are too crude and voters are too easily conned. At the same time Coloradans refused to ban partial birth abortion, they also voted to require parental notification for children seeking abortion. The split vote on abortion suggests a subtlety among voters that critics of initiatives rarely acknowledge.)

The initiatives also expressed a surprisingly strong faith in government and a willingness to expand it. Voters gave a full-throated endorsement to public education. Californians approved a $9 billion school bond issue, and Rhode Islanders OKed a (much) smaller one. Coloradans rejected a proposal to give tax credits for private school tuition, and South Dakotans rebuffed an effort to stop financing schools with property taxes.

Five states--Arizona, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina--endorsed ballot initiatives to expand state environmental funding and, in all but Arizona, by huge margins. South Dakotans voted to restrict corporate hog farming, as well. Only in Oregon, where a massively broad ban on logging was proposed, did an environmental initiative fail. On animal rights, too, voters cast ballots for more government regulation, choosing to ban cockfighting in Arizona, animal baiting in Missouri, and animal traps and horsemeat sales in California. (Alaska did reject a ban of wolf traps, and Ohioans voted to continue the hunting of mourning doves.)

Washingtonians voted to raise the minimum wage. Floridians imposed a new waiting period for gun purchases. Arizona and Massachusetts both passed campaign finance reforms allowing public funding of state candidates. Nebraska--conservative Nebraska--turned down an effort to impose mandatory restraints on state spending. Iowa gender neutralized its constitution (New Hampshire did not), and Florida passed an equal rights initiative. And, in the "it may not sound like progress but it is" department, Utah residents overturned a 102-year-old law limiting the property rights of married women, and South Carolinians struck the miscegenation ban from the state constitution.

Democrats afflicted with a foolish optimism may view these initiative victories as a sign of an impending liberal majority. I suspect they represent something else: the generosity of the prosperous. According to exit polls, American voters feel happy and rich. These votes reflect a generous, expansive mood. Sick people want to smoke a joint? Let 'em, what harm does it do? More money for schools? Sure! Clean water? You bet! These are not liberal activist votes, cast because the initiatives advance a progressive agenda. They seem to be smile-on-the-face votes, cast because the initiatives are modest and well-intentioned and, at worst, harmless.

Weather Update

On Monday and Tuesday, in homage to the "turnout is everything" analysts, I predicted the outcome of tight races based on the USA Today weather map. Today is judgment day. How accurate was the weather forecast election forecast?

New York

Prediction: Dry weather increases Democratic turnout, and Chuck Schumer wins.

Result: Dry weather, and Schumer won.

Maryland

Prediction: If it rains, devoted Republicans vote and Ellen Sauerbrey unseats Gov. Parris Glendening.

Result: It rained, but Glendening won easily.

North Carolina

Prediction: Rain should suppress Democratic turnout, and Sen. Lauch Faircloth wins re-election.

Result: It rained, but Democrat John Edwards defeated Faircloth.

South Carolina

Prediction: Rain should suppress Democratic turnout. Republican Gov. David Beasley should win re-election, and Republican Senate candidate Bob Inglis should defeat incumbent Sen. Fritz Hollings.

Result: Fog and rain across the state, but Hollings and Democratic gubernatorial challenger Jim Hodges won.

Georgia

Prediction: Showers across the state might deter Democrats, but if it stops raining in Atlanta that could be good news for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes and Democratic Senate candidate Michael Coles.

Result: Scattered showers across the state but mostly decent weather. Barnes won the governorship, but Coles lost to incumbent Sen. Paul Coverdell.

Kentucky

Prediction: Rain throughout the state helps Republican Jim Bunning win the Senate seat.

Result: It rained, and Bunning won narrowly.

Nevada

Prediction: Dry, pleasant weather helps Democratic incumbent Sen. Harry Reid.

Result: Dry weather, and Reid eked out a victory.

California

Prediction: Generally good weather helps Democrats Barbara Boxer and Gray Davis. If it rains in Northern California, Republicans Matt Fong and Dan Lungren could win upsets.

Result: Good weather held, Boxer kept her Senate seat, and Davis won the governor's race.

Washington

Prediction: If it doesn't rain in Seattle, Democrats turn out for Sen. Patty Murray and she holds her seat.

Result: It didn't rain, and Murray fended off challenger Linda Smith.

Wisconsin

Prediction: Cold but dry weather boosts Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold

Result: No rain and Feingold defended his seat.

Illinois

Prediction: If it rains downstate but is clear in Chicago, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun might steal a come-from-behind win.

Result: It rained downstate but not in Chicago. Even so, Moseley-Braun lost.

Overall Result for the Mother Nature Index: 54 percent (7 out of 13 races picked correctly), which is not much worse than the average election prognosticator and a lot better than the average weather forecaster.