Voters in Southern states approve a mixed bag of ballot measures in 2018

In the recent midterm elections, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 to automatically restore voting rights to most ex-felons after they complete their sentences. It got 64 percent of the vote. (Graphic from Floridians for a Fair Democracy.)

Besides electing new federal, state, and local officials in last week's 2018 midterms, voters across the South also weighed in on a total of 44 ballot measures.

Most of the measures up for a vote this year were put there by legislatures and reflected the conservative composition of gerrymandered Southern statehouses. In Florida, the majority of the dozen measures on this year's ballot were placed there by a politically appointed commission charged with revising the state constitution. But there and elsewhere, other measures were also put before voters through the citizen initiative process, a form of direct democracy that requires gathering a large amount of signatures to qualify a proposal for the ballot.

The citizen initiative process has been recognized in the U.S. since at least 1777 when it was included in Georgia's first constitution, but not all states currently allow for citizen-initiated statutes and/or constitutional amendments. Eighteen states allow initiated amendments, including the Southern states of Arkansas, Florida, and Mississippi. And of the 21 states that allow initiated statutes, only one — Arkansas — is in the South.

As might be expected in a politically divided region, the measures on Southern states' ballots this year included both progressive and regressive proposals. On the progressive side were proposals to raise the minimum wage, reform the criminal justice system, expand voting rights, and protect the environment; those measures actually outperformed Democrats running for office, showing broad popular support for progressive policies. Among the regressive measures that passed in the region were restrictions on reproductive rights and voting.

These are some of the most impactful measures that voters in Southern states approved this year:

  • Alabama and West Virginia voters move closer to banning abortion. In a move that the measures' proponents say prepare their states to quickly ban abortion should the conservative U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, voters in Alabama and West Virginia approved legislatively referred constitutional amendments to restrict the procedure. Alabama's Amendment 2, which passed by a 59-41 margin, makes it state policy to "recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life," and says that no state constitutional provisions protect abortion rights or funding. West Virginia's Amendment 1, which passed by a 52-48 margin, says that "nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion." The amendments are part of a broader state-level attack on abortion rights that intensified with the 2010 elections, when anti-abortion conservatives made big gains in capitals across the South and elsewhere. Even before these measures passed, the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research and policy organization, ranked every state in the South as either "hostile" or "extremely hostile" to abortion rights.

  • Arkansas voters raise the hourly minimum wage to $11. Convinced by proponents' argument that it would improve families' living standards while boosting consumer demand, Arkansans approved Issue 5, a citizen-initiated measure to increase the minimum wage, by an overwhelming 68 percent. Under the new law, the state minimum wage of $8.50 an hour — which itself was set by a citizen-initiated 2014 ballot measure — will increase to $9.25 by Jan. 1, 2019; $10 by Jan. 1, 2020; and $11 on Jan. 1, 2021. Arkansas already has the highest minimum wage among neighboring states, three of which — Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee — have no state minimum wage law at all. Issue 5 was one of two minimum-wage-increase proposals on state ballots in 2018; the other, establishing a $12 minimum wage in Missouri, also passed, getting over 62 percent of the vote. Because of the Issue 5's passage, almost 155,000 Arkansas children have a parent who will get a raise, according to Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, part of the Arkansans for a Fair Wage coalition that promoted the measure.

  • Arkansas and North Carolina voters adopt voter ID requirements. In a setback for voting rights advocates, Arkansas and North Carolina citizens approved legislatively referred amendments requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls — policies known to be racially discriminatory. Arkansas already had a voter ID law in effect, approved last year by the state's Republican-led legislature and governor and upheld by the state Supreme Court; Issue 2, which passed with over 79 percent of the vote, enshrines those requirements in the constitution. In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a photo ID law in 2013 but had it repeatedly blocked by the courts, leading it to take the ballot route. But the North Carolina Voter ID Amendment was controversial because it lacked details on which forms of ID would be accepted at the polls or how voters without one could acquire an ID; the details are set to be determined during a special lame-duck legislative session set for Nov. 27 that will take place under gubernatorial veto-proof GOP supermajorities in the state House and Senate, which voters just ended. Even though opinion surveys have found strong support for voter ID in North Carolina, with a 2013 Elon University poll showing that 72 percent of voters statewide backed voter ID requirements, the amendment passed with only 55.5 percent of the vote, due in no small part to an opposition campaign led by voting rights groups and black church leaders. Voting rights advocates in the state are now turning their attention to the special session. "These restrictions have a track record of denying ballot access to real voters in North Carolina, and we're committed to protecting those voters now and moving forward," said Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.

  • Florida voters re-enfranchise 1.4 million ex-felons. Constitutional amendments need a 60 percent supermajority to pass in the state, and over 64 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a citizen-initiated ballot measure to automatically restore voting rights to people with convictions for most felonies except for murder or a sexual offenses upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation. The amendment's passage, promoted by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, means Florida is no longer among the three states, the others being Kentucky and Iowa, where constitutions permanently disenfranchise citizens with past felony convictions and give governors sole authority to restore their voting rights. The Jim Crow-era policy that the amendment overturns disenfranchised 9.2 percent of Florida's overall voting-age population and 17.9 percent of its black voting-age population."Not since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971 has a single change in the law extended the franchise to so many in the United States at once," noted the Brennan Center for Justice.

  • Florida voters ban offshore oil and gas drilling. Florida voters approved by almost 69 percent Amendment 9, which bans offshore drilling for oil and natural gas on lands beneath all state waters as well as the use of electronic cigarettes in indoor workplaces. It was referred to the ballot by the state Constitution Revision Commission. Though Florida has a law against oil and gas drilling in state waters, there is increasing concern that it could be overturned, as the legislature considered doing back in 2009. The Trump administration has also pushed to expand offshore drilling but agreed to exclude Florida from its plans after Gov. Rick Scott — a Republican currently embroiled in a tight race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat and drilling foe Bill Nelson — intervened with then-EPA chief Ryan Zinke. But the majority of Florida voters were clearly ready to make the ban permanent and not depend on interventions by well-connected politicians. "At a time when the federal government has announced its intent to open all U.S. coasts to drilling, passing Amendment 9 sends a message to policymakers that Floridians want to protect the state's coast from the risks of oil and gas extraction," said Susan Glickman, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy's Florida director.

  • Louisiana voters end non-unanimous jury verdicts for some felony trials. A state law put in place during the Jim Crow era to ensure a strong supply of cheap convict labor by allowing defendants to be convicted of a felony with the agreement of only 10 of 12 jurors has been rejected by Louisiana voters. They approved Amendment 2, a legislatively referred measure to require unanimous jury verdicts in all felony cases, by a margin of 64 to 36. Louisiana had been one of only two states that allowed non-unanimous verdicts, the other being Oregon. The Louisiana measure had the support of both the state Republican and Democratic parties as well as numerous civil rights groups. "This is something that is wholly unnecessary that was born of this fusion of racism and disenfranchisement," said state Sen. J.P. Morrell, the Democrat who sponsored the measure. "It's a self-defeating, illogical position to have two jurors say ‘we don't think he did it,' then prosecutors to say we met our reasonable doubt standard."