t’s been a whirlwind two years since the 2016 U.S. elections, and we’ve seen the Trump administration forge forward with disastrous policies that protect and enrich our elites while damaging the most vulnerable among us. But Americans have been pushing back at every opportunity, from our workplaces to our borders.
That opposition will continue at the polls on Election Day, and inequality will figure heavily in the decisions voters make. On the ballot will be a host of local and state initiatives that target the concentration of income and wealth and an even greater number of candidates who have run on platforms that press for greater equality.
As voters head to the polls, here are a few of the key inequality stories we’ll be monitoring on Election Day.
Ballot initiatives around the country that would do the most to reverse inequality
It was hard to find hope on November 9, 2016. But while we processed the news of Trump’s election, we took solace in the work of organizers working on the state and local level who managed to eke out victories on inequality-related ballot initiatives. Those measures, from tax increases to campaign finance initiatives, offered us glimmers of hope on a dark day.
This year, we’re watching several specific ballot initiatives that promise to help address our wide economic divides. Voters in Missouri and Arkansas will both have the option to increase the minimum wage for workers in their states. A yes vote for Missourians would gradually raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour and then tie it to changes in the Consumer Price Index. Meanwhile, Arkansas voters will decide whether or not to bring their minimum wage up from $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour.
Several states are asking their citizens to weigh in on their tax systems. We’re keeping an especially close eye on the measures that would raise state taxes to provide crucial services. A Maine initiative asks voters to subsidize the cost of home care for seniors, paid for by a payroll tax on the top 3 percent of earners in the state. And as teachers across the country hope to capitalize on the momentum from the historic strikes earlier this year, they’re also asking for additional taxes in Colorado and Utah to boost education funding.
California is also offering up several interesting inequality-busting initiatives. We covered the rise of Wall Street landlords earlier this year. Private equity firms swooped into neighborhoods in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, buying up homes to become key players in California’s single family home rental market. Californians will decide whether or not to curb some of the power of these rental giants with Proposition 10, which would allow cities to increase rent control protections. The ballot measure has become quite a fight, as the Wall Street firms that stand to lose out have been pouring millions into the campaign against the initiative, even using the funds invested by some of the same California public employees organizing for rent control.
The question of affordable housing isn’t limited to the state level in California. San Francisco voters will also consider a proposition that would help address homelessness by raising taxes on companies raking in more than $50 million annually in revenue. Many of the city’s tech billionaires are staunchly against the proposition, and have opened their pocketbooks in hopes of shutting it down.
We’re also watching another California city-level proposition. Los Angeles will ask its residents whether it should amend the city charter to allow for a public bank. Should voters say yes, they’ll remove a roadblock that’s been slowing a popular movement to create a city bank and help free Los Angeles from Wall Street’s grip.
Candidates who’ve put inequality at the core of their agenda
This election is shining a spotlight on a few rising political stars who’ve put reversing inequality at the top of their priorities. But are these headline-grabbers part of a national trend? One way to get a better sense of this is to look at the candidates endorsed by Our Revolution. Built on the Sanders for President campaign, this group asks candidates seeking endorsement to fill out a questionnaire that begins with five questions on income and wealth inequality, including whether they support breaking up the big banks and raising taxes on the rich and large corporations.
Our Revolution-backed candidates don’t represent everyone running on an anti-inequality agenda, since endorsement depends on the existence of a local chapter. But monitoring how these candidates fare on Election Day will say something about the power of the inequality message. Endorsees include two senate candidates (Sanders in Vermont and Beto O’Rourke in Texas) and 29 House candidates, from progressive stalwarts like Raul Grijalva to newbies like Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in Illinois and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota.
Trends in campaign finance
CEOs and other deep-pocket donors are once again pulling out the stops. The Congressional races will be the most expensive in history, with experts expecting campaign costs to surpass $5 billion. Where’s the money coming from? We’ve pinpointed a few trends to watch come Election Day.
Dozens of wealthy candidates, like Florida Senate candidate Rick Scott, have poured millions of their own funds into their campaigns. And of course corporate groups, like the banking industry, are weighing in. For the first time, the American Bankers Association has come out with ads to help bolster politicians from both parties that have helped advance legislation to deregulate the industry. Then there are the CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies donating by the tens of thousands. Unlike corporate PACs that might try to spread the wealth to gain influence across the political spectrum, many CEOs have decided to take brazenly partisan stances this year.
Not all the money is coming from the super wealthy, though. There’s been a boom in small donations this year, especially helped by the online fundraising efforts of groups like ActBlue. We’re eager to see how the proportion of small donations will compare to the last midterm election.
And while CEO coffers are flowing, candidates are increasingly wary of accepting money from political action committees from industry groups. Is the unprecedented number of candidates refusing corporate PAC donations making a difference? And who are the candidates pushing their campaign finance standards past simple symbolism? Katie Porter, who’s hoping to flip California’s 45th district, isn’t just saying no to corporate PAC money. She’s also refusing donations from anyone who works for the biggest Wall Street banks. Porter’s district has been a Republican stronghold since the 1980s, but there’s a reasonable chance voters will send Porter, an unabashed progressive, to Congress.
The rich-poor gap in voter participation
Will the rich-poor gap in voter participation be as stark as it was in the last midterm election? In 2014, the Americans most likely to vote were those making more than $150,000 per year, with nearly 57 percent participation. The least likely: those making less than $10,000, with just 24 percent participation.
Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder are less likely to vote for a mix of reasons: voter suppression, difficulty getting off work to get to the polls, apathy over a political system rigged to benefit the rich. All these challenges are as present this go-round as they’ve always been, although groups like the Poor People’s Campaign and others are devoting more resources to boosting turnout among marginalized voters.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders are certainly doing their part to motivate the poor to head to the polls by proposing Medicare and Social Security cuts and other reforms that would hit those at the bottom hardest.
Negin Owliaei and Sarah Anderson are co-editors of Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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