Voters across the country sounded off on key ballot initiatives with moral implications, while Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in eight years.
Although congressional election results fell lopsidedly toward conservatives, the fate of ballot initiatives showed a more complex electorate.
Among key issues that arose in multiple states was the minimum wage. Four “red” states passed ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage.
Arkansas voters overwhelmingly approved a minimum wage increase even as the state appeared to take the final step in transitioning from a Democrat-led to a Republican-led state.
By a 65-to-35 percent margin, voters approved increasing the minimum wage from $6.25 to $7.50 on Jan. 1, 2015, to $8 on Jan. 1, 2016, and then to $8.50 on Jan. 1, 2017.
Stephen Copley, a United Methodist pastor in Arkansas, led the Give Arkansas a Raise Now coalition that pushed the minimum wage ballot initiative. Copley helped arrange financing for the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Gospel Without Borders,” that tackled the issue of immigration from a moral perspective.
“We are excited that hard-working Arkansans will get a raise beginning Jan. 1, 2015, in order to help them make ends meet,” Copley told EthicsDaily.com after the election results.
Arkansas Republicans won an open governor’s seat (previously held by a Democrat) and easily defeated a Democratic U.S. senator. For the first time in 141 years, no Democrats will be among Arkansas’ congressional delegation.
Voters in Nebraska approved a minimum wage increase by a 59-to-41 percent margin. The state’s minimum wage will increase from $7.25 to $8 on Jan. 1, 2015, and to $9 on Jan. 1, 2016.
On the same ballot, voters overwhelmingly elected a Republican governor and a Republican U.S. senator.
Voters also approved increasing the minimum wage in South Dakota. With a 55-to-45 percent vote, the state’s minimum wage will rise from $7.25 to $8.50 on Jan. 1, 2015. Additionally, the minimum wage for tipped employees will jump from $2.13 to $4.25.
South Dakota voters approved the measure while also overwhelmingly electing a Republican governor and a Republican U.S. senator.
In Alaska, voters also approved increasing the minimum wage. With nearly 69 percent support, the initiative will increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.75 to $8.75 on Jan. 1, 2015, and to $9.75 on Jan. 1, 2016.
A solid Republican state in presidential elections, one-term Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, the state’s only Democratic U.S. senator in the last three decades, trails Republican Dan Sullivan 49-to-45 percent. The race remains unresolved.
Voters in Georgia and Kansas also sounded off on economic issues ripe with moral considerations.
Georgians voted by a 3-to-1 margin to cap the state’s top income tax rate. After Jan. 1, 2015, legislators will be unable to increase it. The rate is currently set at 6 percent.
Voters also re-elected Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who was opposed by fellow Baptist Jason Carter, a grandson of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Kansas voters gave 3-to-1 support to a constitutional amendment to allow churches and other charitable organizations to conduct raffles, which were previously considered illegal gambling.
Despite the successes of pro-life politicians on election night, ballot initiatives aimed at restricting abortion mostly failed.
In Colorado, voters rejected a third attempt to define personhood as starting before birth.
Even as the state defeated an incumbent Democratic U.S. senator, voters rejected the initiative nearly 2-to-1. Previous personhood efforts were defeated in 2008 and 2010 by greater margins.
Exit polling data showed two-thirds of white evangelicals, who were an estimated 24 percent of the electorate, backed the personhood initiative. All other voters rejected it 3-to-1.
A proposed constitutional amendment in North Dakota to assert that “life begins at conception” also failed overwhelmingly. Voters rejected the measure by a 64-to-36 percent margin.
Tennessee voters approved by a 53-to-47 margin a constitutional amendment to empower state legislators to enact laws restricting abortion. This was the only successful statewide ballot initiative aimed at abortion.
Tennesseans elected a Republican governor and a Republican U.S. senator by much stronger margins.
An effort to ban Islamic sharia law in Alabama easily passed. Written generically to avoid constitutional problems that an earlier Oklahoma effort experienced, the Alabama constitutional amendment sought “to prohibit the application of foreign law” in circumstances when it conflicts with U.S. laws.
Several other states have enacted similar laws in recent years, with critics calling the laws unnecessary and discriminatory toward Muslims. Alabama voters overwhelming approved the measure by a 72-to-28 percent margin.
Proponents of marijuana legalization enjoyed a strong night of wins, just two years after Washington and Colorado legalized the drug.
In Oregon, voters approved an initiative to legalize marijuana manufacturing, sale, use and limited possession for those 21 and older.
With 54 percent support, voters approved the measure just two years after defeating a similar – but more expansive – legalization initiative.
Exit poll data shows those who attend church weekly opposed marijuana legalization by a 2-to-1 margin while those who never attend supported it by a 3-to-1 margin.
This divide echoes what is often called the “god gap,” as weekly church attendees generally back Republican candidates while non-attendees usually back Democrats.
Alaska voters also legalized the manufacture, sale, use and limited possession of marijuana for those 21 and older. Voters approved the measure by a 52-to-48 percent margin.
Voters in Washington, D.C., also voted to legalize marijuana. With 65 percent voting in support, the law allows manufacture and limited possession (but not sale) of marijuana for those 21 and older.
Federal lands in the district, however, will still be covered by a federal ban of marijuana.
In Florida, a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana gained a majority of the vote but failed to reach the necessarily 60 percent required for constitutional changes.
Nearly 58 percent of Floridians approved the measure on the same night incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott narrowly defeated former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as a Democrat.
According to exit poll data, Protestants in Florida backed the medical marijuana amendment by a 53-to-47 percent margin, while Catholics backed it by a 61-to-39 percent margin.
Those with no religious identification backed it by a 78-to-22 percent margin. White Protestants opposed the effort even as Protestants overall supported it.
On the issue of alcohol, voters in Arkansas easily rejected a ballot initiative that would have allowed alcohol sales statewide.
Currently, each county sets the policy and about half of Arkansas’ counties remain dry. By a 57-to-43 percent margin, voters chose to retain county authority on the issue.
As the dust continues to settle on the midterm elections, perhaps the importance of ballot initiatives will eventually garner more attention.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.