For Immediate Release
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
That’s the way, on a range of ballot box issues, I saw American voters behaving Nov. 6.
Consider California’s vote to broaden and reinforce education. For several years, the state has been battered by a ferocious fiscal storm. Its universities and schools have been bloodied by budgets cuts, their performance sinking. A new loss of $6 billion in education spending was looming.
Gov. Jerry Brown decided the additional cuts would be unconscionable. He staked his legacy on a ballot proposal to bolster the educational system two ways – by raising sales taxes 0.25 percent and by increasing income taxes for people earning more than $250,000 a year. Ferocious anti-tax opposition erupted, including some $11 million slipped into California by an obscure Arizona-based group.
But the voters approved Brown’s initiative, 54 percent to 46 percent. The governor could claim a dramatic victory for California’s future. Yet he surely didn’t signal unfettered spending. Hours after the vote, he was warning the California Legislature to resist expanded budgets, to exercise “the prudence of Joseph” on spending.
A next breakthrough: reform of America’s notoriously ineffective (and prison-packing) drug laws. Washington and Colorado voters passed measures making their states the first to legalize marijuana – not just for medicinal use, but recreation as well.
Under the new laws, anyone 21 or older may possess up to an ounce of marijuana. And cannabis can be legally sold – and taxed – at state-licensed stores, much like many states’ liquor stores.
Plus, Massachusetts voters made theirs the 18th state to recognize marijuana for medical purposes.
Those votes likely mark “the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition in this country,” asserts Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. He recalls that repeal of Prohibition actually began in the late 1920s with individual states overturning their own statues banning alcohol.
The shift in national opinion is striking: In 2006, the Gallup Poll found only 36 percent of Americans favored legalized marijuana use. By last year, the figure had jumped to 50 percent.
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper claims the new Colorado and Washington measures represent a decisive turn against the “40 years of racist-destructive futility that is the war on drugs.” The big losers, he contends, are “drug cartels, street gangs, those who profit from keeping America’s incarceration rates the highest in the world.” His winners, by contrast, are “the rest of us,” including taxpayers, police and “all who care about social justice.”
But what about the Obama administration, which has continued to prosecute marijuana cases, including medical marijuana? It didn’t weigh in against the initiatives removing the state bans – even though former drug czars and Drug Enforcement Agency heads urged it to do so. Politics helps to explain: Legalization is favored overwhelmingly by the young voter cadre that President Obama counted on for re-election. The mystery now is whether his second term will produce a “kinder, gentler” policy toward individuals’ use of marijuana, a substance that’s arguably far less dangerous to public health and safety than alcohol.
In another election day decision, California voters made a significant change in the state’s draconian “three strikes” law – the one imposing life sentence for felony convictions, passed in the “tough on crime” era of the early 1990s. A controversial section of the law has permitted invoking the life sentence even when a third conviction is for a minor offense. Thousands of offenders have been put behind bars for life even when their last offenses were as petty as stealing a piece of pizza or possessing a marijuana joint. The Nov. 6 vote ensured that would no longer happen.
The vote is significant: Some 3,700 California prisoners – more than 40 percent of the state’s third-strike prison population of 8,500 – are serving life sentences for a third strike that was neither violent nor serious.
A dramatic vote for gay rights: Maryland and Maine became the first of the 50 states to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box. Final vote tallies in Washington State were expected to confirm the same mandate. Concurrently, Minnesota voters turned down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in the state.
The votes represented a dramatic reversal of a 32-state streak of popular votes, starting in 1998, all for measures written to prohibit or seriously discourage gay marriage.
“The tide has turned,” Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign, a California-based group, told the Associated Press: “When voters have the opportunity to really hear directly from loving, committed same-sex couples and their families, they vote for fairness.”
I’d argue that last Tuesday’s top-drawer votes go even further, identifying with fellow citizens’ needs and fates – evidence of rich citizenship whenever it occurs.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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