Underneath the amazing and encouraging results of last week’s election, we find some other unheralded, systemic and wonderful advances for democracy. They are the work of quiet progressives focusing on economic advances for working class and middle class Americans, on better ways to choose candidates and on systems to reflect actual votes in a democracy.
So, let’s get to the winning ballot issues, which we can build upon and replicate throughout our state and our country.
Just south of Seattle, in the working class and immigrant suburb of Tukwila, 83 percent of voters approved a measure to increase Tukwila’s minimum wage to match the minimum wages of its neighboring cities of SeaTac and Seattle. Tukwila’s minimum wage will reach $19.06 an hour by 2023. That will be a significant increase for minimum wage workers. Thousands of underpaid workers at corporate chains around Westfield Southcenter will get a raise. The initiative also mandates that employers offer additional hours of work to existing employees before hiring new employees or subcontractors, making it more likely that employees won’t have to hold onto two or three jobs and instead can earn enough money with a single employer to make ends meet.
In the other Washington — 3,000 miles across the country — the minimum wage was also protected, as DC citizens approved, by a three-to-one margin, an initiative to eliminate the “tip credit.” The tip credit allows employers of workers who receive tips to grossly underpay their employees. In DC, the minimum wage is $15.20 an hour, but tipped workers can get paid as little as $5.05 an hour. Now that is history, with the tip credit gradually being eliminated. It will be gone by 2027.
Tukwila and DC voters chose Democrats. So, let’s look at a state in which Republicans rule, from the governor and the two U.S. senators on down to the state legislature.
One of those states is South Dakota. The legislature there refused to participate in the Affordable Care Act expansion of Medicaid for people who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (about $18,000 for a single person). One result of this refusal is that, while only 3.1 percent of kids in Washington do not have health coverage, 8.1 percent of kids go without health coverage in South Dakota. In fact, in every age category for health coverage, South Dakota falls behind Washington.
So in this election, South Dakota voters overtook their own legislature, passing a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid (the same health coverage as Apple Health in our state) as an entitlement to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The vote wasn’t even close: 56 percent of voters supported this constitutional amendment.
Oregon voters also passed a constitutional amendment related to health care. In fact, this one is profoundly fundamental. Now the Oregon constitution will state that “[i]t is the obligation of the state to ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right.” That constitutional amendment passed with 51 percent of the vote. We all want health coverage. Now it is up to Oregon’s legislature and newly elected governor to figure out how to make this constitutional right a reality for all Oregonians.
Oregon also provides us with a model for ranked-choice voting with proportional representation, thanks to the voters in Portland, who amended the city charter. Right now, in our state, if your candidate gets a measly 49 percent of the vote, you don’t get any representation in the halls of government. This leaves a huge sector of citizens unrepresented.
According to Sightline, Portland’s newly approved election system with proportional representation will “provide accurate political representation of the electorate. ... Instead of having one candidate or party representing the entire electorate because they got the most votes, different blocs of voters are able to get a voice at the table by gaining seats based on their percentage of the vote.”
Portland will have four districts, each electing three city councilmembers. After ranked-choice voting winnows the field, candidates who receive more than 25 percent of the total votes will be elected to the City Council. Twenty-five percent plus one vote is the threshold, because if three candidates meet that threshold, no other candidate can exceed it.
While by last count Seattle seems to have passed ranked-choice voting in a squeaker, we are still burdened with the “first past the post” system, denying representation to as many as 49 percent of voters. Ranked-choice voting is the first step. It moves us away from a yes/no decision and enables us to actually rank our choices. When that happens, candidates may run more civil campaigns because, even if you don’t rank them as your favorite, the candidates want your support as your second or third choice.
With ranked-choice voting, the winnowing process continues until a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. With proportional representation added to ranked-choice voting, we can take another step toward a true democracy that reflects the will of the people.
In Olympia, the legislature simply needs to step out of the way and enable localities around the state to go forward with ranked-choice voting. Looking south to Portland offers the pathway.
John Burbank is the founder and retired executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle.
Read more of the Nov. 16-22, 2022 issue.