When voters make policy changes themselves

When voters make policy changes themselves

“DEMOCRACY IS THE art of running the circus from the monkey cage,” the American satirist H.L. Mencken once quipped. Usually this is done by delegating responsibility, but occasionally the frustrated monkeys decide matters for themselves. In this mid-term election, they opted for electoral reform, expanded medical programmes and once again reached for the marijuana.

Start with the election tweaking. In Michigan 61% of voters chose to end partisan gerrymandering. Instead—in a touching show of everyman populism—the lines will have to be approved by a 13-member commission of randomly selected voters. Citizens in Utah, Missouri and Colorado also decided to divest elected officials of the power to draw their own election lines—moves that will be hard to undo in the future. Michigan and Maryland also approved same-day registration for voters (rather than requiring it weeks ahead of time), which will remove one barrier to voting, and Nevada opted to register voters automatically when they turn 18. Conservative voters in Arkansas and North Carolina went in the other direction—approving ballot measures that would require photo identification before votes could be cast. Because actual incidents of voter impersonation and fraud are so rare, Democrats see the laws as thinly-veiled attempts to suppress their voters.

Voting rights of a different sort were on the ballot in Florida. There, 65% of voters approved a ballot initiative automatically restoring voting rights for felons once they have served their sentences, provided they were not convicted of murder or sex crimes. Though Andrew Gillum, a progressive darling running for governor, narrowly fell short, the move could benefit Democratic candidates in future. Nearly 9% of Floridians and a remarkable 18% of black voters have been disenfranchised because of past felony convictions. Campaigners aiming to restore rights to “returning citizens” emphasised Christian ideals of redemption and the notion that punishment should not continue after a person had served his or her time. The message appears to have worked.

Perhaps the most astonishing ballot results came from the heart of Trump country, where three deeply conservative states, Idaho, Utah and Nebraska, all voted to expand Medicaid, the government health-insurance programme for the very poor. This was surprising because Medicaid expansion is a pillar of Obamacare, which is not the most highly regarded law in any of these states. A Supreme Court decision left the decision on expansion to the states, and half of Republican-governed states declined, leading to higher shares of residents without health insurance. In Idaho, where voters went for Donald Trump by 32 percentage points in 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved the measure. For Democrats, the success is a sign that health care, more than any other issue, wins votes in white, rural America.

For the second time in two years, citizens in Washington state rejected a tax on carbon dioxide emissions by a decisive margin. The measure would have been the first of its kind for a state (though nearby California may now take that up as a challenge). By 2023, the tax would have raised $1bn annually. For that reason, it attracted the deep-pocketed opposition of the oil industry, which spent a record $31m opposing the referendum. Even in boom economic times and in a fairly Democratic state, concerted opposition and the unpopularity of energy taxes make carbon taxation a tough sell.

Instead, voters opted to go green in another way: by decriminalising marijuana use in three states. That now makes 33 states where the stuff is legal to some degree, and ten where devotees can go the whole hog. Utah and Missouri approved the drug for medicinal use. Michiganders opted to go fully recreational. Which could result in some interesting map-making from the 13 regular Joes who will be drafted to scrutinise the state’s election lines.

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