Use Minimum Wage Ballot Initiatives to Drive the Democratic Vote in 2022
We need to frame the 2022 elections around the message of fighting for a just economy. A national campaign with ballot initiative in multiple states is one way to do that.
With Manchin's intransigence on breaking the filibuster even for voting rights, the only option for raising the minimum wage nationally will have to be aiming to elect more Senators committed to overturning the filibuster and building new political momentum for passage after the 2022 midterms. One key tool could be running ballot initiatives in multiple states, particularly in the states where US Senate elections will be contested. (See map below)
The last time the minimum wage was raised, way back in 2007, this followed campaigns to nationalize the issue in the midterm election in 2006, including multiple ballot initiatives that year in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, and Ohio. That, in turn, followed successful minimum wage initiatives in Nevada and Florida in 2004 that had demonstrated that the minimum wage was wildly popular with voters - with both of those initiatives winning with more than two-thirds of the vote. (I was personally involved in the 2004 Florida campaign through my work then at the Brennan Center for Justice).
That 2006 midterms election combined a national focus by House then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi making the minimum wage a national priority for the midterms and a broad grassroots campaign led by a coalition called Let Justice Roll across multiple states targeting the minimum wage as a moral campaign. The result was Pelosi became Speaker after the 2006 election as Dems gained 31 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate. While the minimum wage was not the only reason for the result, many analysts saw these campaigns as critical in raising progressive turnout in key states.
Looking at the map below, you can see a wide range of states where the minimum wage can be raised through ballot initiatives, including many with Senate races in 2022. Ohio has a critical chance for a Senate pickup where a minimum wage ballot campaign could make a difference, just as campaigns in Nevada and Arizona could help juice turnout and set the debate to help defend vulnerable Dem Senate incumbents.
The Nevada legislature has already voted to put a $12 per hour minimum wage initiative on the 2022 ballot (which will also abolish a two-tier wage system currently in place.) Idaho and Nebraska activists are already mobilizing to put $15/hr minimum wage initiatives on those states’ ballots. California advocates are seeking to raise their minimum wage to $18 per hour by 2027 - raising the bar nationally. It would be great if national progressive coalitions and donors supported additional ballot campaigns for the minimum wage in more states.
Along with putting the issue on as many state ballots as possible, what’s needed is Congressional Democrats, particularly in the Senate, to arrange votes to highlight the minimum wage as a key political divide between the parties. Given the overwhelming popularity of the minimum wage- it has won at the ballot in every state campaign in the last twenty years, often by margins over 70% even in swing and red states - it is a great issue to use as a national wedge policy.
And making it a national issue is critical. Democrat Claire McCaskill took out a Republican incumbent in 2006 during the national debate on the minimum wage- with analysts highlighting the minimum wage campaign’s role in helping her election. But despite another minimum wage initiative being on the Missouri ballot in 2018, there was little national focus on the issue (and only one other state with a ballot campaign that year), so it seemed to give her campaign little lift that year. In 2020, Florida was the only state with a minimum wage initiative and, while voters approved the $15/hr minimum wage by over 60% of the vote, they didn’t support the Democratic candidates for Governor or Senate. Tying initiatives into a national campaign is critical.
The GOP has always been far more focused on coordinating ballot initiatives to drive their voters to the polls in midterms. In the past, initiatives banning gay marriage and abortion were key drivers for conservative turnout and in 2022, they are looking to make restricting voting rights and restricting in-state tuition and voting rights for immigrants a centerpiece of midterm elections in key states.
Progressives need to counter with the kinds of initiatives that bring their base to the polls and give swing voters a moral framing for the election around a just economy that can push them towards voting for Democrats at the polls. To accomplish that, we will need strong coordination between DC leaders pushing the message nationally and support for activists in the states getting the minimum wage on as many ballots as possible, particularly in states where we have the possibility of a Senate pickup.