Beginning on January 1, 19 states increased their minimum wage, raising the wages of millions of workers. Yet politicians weren’t responsible for much of these needed increases. Seventy percent of these raises resulted from citizen-led ballot initiatives. In the 2016 election alone, The Fairness Project supported ballot measures that brought 8.1 million workers a boost in their pay and 2 million paid sick leave while Congress now enters its eighth year without raising a single wage.
Our new report, “Ballot Box Breakthroughs,” analyzes the role we played in accomplishing all of this. Don’t have time to read the report? Here’s five key lessons that made ballot initiatives for economic fairness an overwhelming success. (But you should really read the report.)
1. Where Politicians Fail, People Will Take Action
All across the country, voters have demanded that their elected leaders enact laws to improve the standard of living in their communities, but in most cases, lawmakers can’t or won’t. Our organization worked with partners in Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington D.C., Maine, and Washington and showed that people are eager to bypass incapable politicians and enact these changes on their own.
When Election Day arrived, people were excited to support these minimum wage increases. In both Arizona and Maine, lawmakers failed to pass wage increases in 2016, and in California a minimum wage increase failed to pass the legislature in 2015. However, raising the minimum wage was popular at the ballot box and these initiatives passed with larger margins than the top of the ticket in every single state it was run.
With enthusiasm for change and incredible organizations on the ground, voters were able to accomplish what leaders in state capitals failed to do.
*Washington state was an outlier, but this is cool: Senator Patty Murray was the only candidate to win by a larger margin than the minimum wage. She also was the only Senate candidate who campaigned on behalf of the minimum wage initiative and made it a major component of her campaign.
2. Organize Early, Spend Efficiently
We quickly recognized the benefit of early funding. For instance, The Fairness Project was one of the first national funders to donate to Maine. This brought in other national funders and ensured the campaign was having a conversation with voters more than a year out from Election Day. This money also allowed the campaign to run more efficiently — they were able to use volunteers to collect most of the signatures. It also enabled the Maine campaign to build one of the most successful business organizing efforts of all the states, with more than 600 businesses in support of the measure, far surpassing opposition.
Early investments led to some of the best returns in politics. At a time when a single U.S. Senate campaign raises upwards of $35 million, our four campaign partners raised $15.6 million in total for Election Day and impacted 2.1 million workers!
3. Engage Businesses and Get Them Involved in the Campaigns
Business support matters. The Fairness Project recognized the need to get buy-in from companies and collaborated with businesses like Dr. Bronner’s (the top natural soap brand in North America) and business organizations like Business for a Fair Minimum Wage to create a large business coalition comprised of companies committed to raising the minimum wage, including Organic Valley, Stonyfield, Seventh Generation, MOM’s Organic Market, and Maine Root.
Several of these businesses added a special logo on their packaging to show support for raising the minimum wage. This was the first time that leading companies put their brands on the line to show that fair pay is a key ingredient in healthy products and that raising the minimum wage is vital for healthy communities and local economies.
4. Good Data Can Still Make a Difference
In a year when data seemed all wrong, it still played an important role in the success of ballot initiatives. Ballot campaigns usually expect about 5 percent fewer votes overall than the top of the ticket, but this election was different. The drop-off on the minimum wage ballots this year was around 1.45 percent (according to the latest numbers) in Colorado and Arizona and, in Maine and Washington, more people voted on the ballot initiative than on the presidential race. Four years ago, no ballot measure in these states, regardless of the issue, received more votes than the top of the ticket.
The Fairness Project helped by ensuring state campaigns had access to the same sophisticated tools used by top-of-the-ticket campaigns, and created a brand-new ballot completion model that identified common characteristics among these infrequent voters that was then used to ID these voters, educate them, and persuade them to stick with it long enough to vote on our initiatives. The models were highly successful and received high praise from the campaigns for making their outreach more efficient, cost-effective, and successful. The modeling had an impact on all parts of the campaigns’ programs, including targeting, media buys, and direct mail, which contributed to the increased popularity of these down-ballot initiatives.
“We were able to do much more precise targeting than we otherwise would have. Understanding our turnout and roll-off universes were particularly helpful in all of our field work.” – Patty Kupfer, Campaign Manager, CO
5. Organize, Organize, Organize!
Data alone doesn’t lead to victory — strong organizations do. Volunteers in the Arizona campaign knocked on 300,000 doors identified by data models and, in Colorado, the ballot completion model was particularly useful by helping identify these voters and help increase the margin of victory to more than 10 points, surpassing expectations.
In Washington state and Washington D.C., where the city council voted to raise wages when faced with the threat of a strong ballot initiative campaign, volunteers helped curate voter data, identifying residents who support the measures. This created an infrastructure that didn’t previously exist and ensured information captured in this cycle can be used to continue organizing around economic and other progressive issues in campaigns to come.
As activists plan for 2018 and beyond, they can find comfort that in some ways democracy still works and people are looking for the right reasons to make their voices heard through the ballot box. Yes, Donald Trump was elected president (despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes) and state legislatures and governorships grew more conservative, but this isn’t the whole picture of this cycle. The success of the minimum wage measures is just one example.
Minimum wage gave people of all stripes a reason to show up on Election Day and, as a result, millions of workers now have extra money in their pockets and others have the peace of mind that they’re no longer one sick day away from unemployment. That wasn’t a fluke — the support for progressive economic policies is strong and we need to capitalize and rally around these issues. The Fairness Project helped demonstrate the power of issue-based direct democracy, and, as we plan for the future in the specter of a Trump administration, this path will prove to be more important than ever.