To Win Progressive Policies, Tell Voters Exactly How They Will Benefit

Midterm ballot initiative votes in Colorado and Massachusetts suggest that taxing the rich and increasing public spending is more popular with voters when it’s clear exactly how these measures will improve people’s lives.

Don’t just tell voters how new tax revenue will be spent — structure the policy so that voters know exactly how their lives will improve. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Progressive ballot initiative victories in the 2022 midterms have given the Left more clues about the best ways to expand public goods while taxing the rich. One lesson: don’t just tell voters how new tax revenue will be spent — structure the policy so that voters know exactly how their lives will improve.

Others have forcefully argued that using “the ballot” (the citizen initiative process in US states and municipalities) can help win structural economic reforms while building left political power through coalition-driven campaigns. One way to use the ballot to increase taxes on the rich is to tell voters how new tax revenue will be spent, which was likely one reason Arizona voters decided to raise taxes on high incomes in 2020 for K–12 education. This may also be why voters in Illinois — a state where Democrats never lose anymore — rejected a policy in 2020 to raise taxes on the rich, as it was largely disconnected from any meaningful ways to spend the new tax revenue.

Recently, Benjamin Case and Michael McQuarrie catalogued how voters across the United States approved egalitarian policy questions on state ballots in the 2022 midterm elections. One victory came in Massachusetts, where voters approved a policy (Question 1) to raise taxes on incomes above $1 million to increase education and transportation funding. This was a good reform, but a closer look may raise some eyebrows: the measure only passed by 4 points (52 to 48 percent), despite a muscular grassroots coalition leading the campaign and a whopping 29 point victory by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, voters approved a ballot measure (Proposition FF) to raise taxes on incomes above $300,000 to universally fund meals for public school students — by a far wider 13.5 point margin (56.8 to 43.3 percent). The $300,000-plus income group is also far bigger than the $1 million–plus group (in Massachusetts), so more people will pay the cost and have a greater interest in opposing the Colorado policy. And even though Colorado is now a Democrat-dominated state electorally, Massachusetts is still more of a Democratic stronghold.

The Importance of Specifics

What explains the significantly higher level of support for Colorado’s policy than Massachusetts’s?

Massachusetts voters were deciding on general transportation and education spending increases, which could come in many forms. This likely left them more susceptible to opposition arguments about how state politicians might spend the new money in unwise or wasteful ways. In Colorado, voters knew precisely that public school kids would no longer go hungry during the school day and food-service workers would get a deserved pay raise.

A partial cause of the difference in outcomes in these two states lies in the policy construction: when voters are deciding whether to tax the rich, they want to know precisely the impact the new policy will have on their families, their communities, and their state. It’s true that public spending on transportation infrastructure and K–12 education is broadly popular, but painting a concrete picture of new government programs guarantees that voters will say yes. (In 2020, the successful Arizona education policy specified exactly what sorts of K–12 programs would receive increased funding from the new progressive tax.)

Ashley Wheeland, policy director at Hunger Free Colorado, who worked centrally on the Prop FF campaign, told Jacobin, “People like the idea of feeding kids. Families knew what it was like to have that benefit [when the federal government was funding it]. Others knew what it was like to see others facing food insecurity.”

Wheeland acknowledged that a strength of the policy was that voters knew with certainty that a specific problem would be solved if the ballot measure passed, as compared to generally reforming the state budget in a progressive direction:

We have a lot of fixing to do with the state budget, but when we talk about that with the voters, it sounds really broad. We were asking for a specific program to be covered with Prop FF. I think that did help. Voters understood where the dollars would go.

Eve Weinbaum, president of the faculty and librarians’ unions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a leader in the Massachusetts Q1 campaign, said the opposition’s most effective argument was that voters might be approving funds that the legislature could spend however it wanted.

All of [the opposition’s] ads had a tagline that said, “Vote no on the politicians’ tax hike amendment.” Why would you give money to the state legislature and let them decide what to do with it? Honestly, that was an effective argument. We even had leftists in our coalition who felt the same way.

When asked whether Massachusetts voters were certain about how revenue would be spent, Weinbaum said, “That was our challenge in doing the organizing. We knew we were going to fight for this and then our work would not be done, because next we’re gonna have to make sure the funds go to the right place.”

Q1 in Massachusetts had an impressively strong and organized coalition, and the policy still passed, so their strategy clearly worked. But it’s likely that if the policy on the ballot dictated precisely how families, students, or communities would materially benefit, voters would have supported the ballot measure at higher margins. This strategy may be particularly useful in political environments outside of blue Massachusetts — for example, places with less united labor union coalitions or in more Republican-dominated states.

Other factors may have also mattered for the difference in results in Colorado and Massachusetts. For example, Colorado saw very little organized money spent in opposition, while Massachusetts had an active opposition campaign. But this is unlikely to be the full story, as the “Yes on 1” side in Massachusetts still out-fundraised the opposition campaign by two to one.

One vital component of the Colorado policy was that it proposed spending on a concrete and popular program. People are rarely opposed to public school kids not going hungry. If the new revenue was to be spent on a less clearly popular and beneficial goal — such as expanded school parking lots or teachers’ lounges — voters may not have been so happy.

When structuring redistributive policies, making the policy benefits concrete especially works when the policy impact itself is popular. Fortunately, the US left has mostly cohered around economic policies broadly popular with working-class majorities: cheaper health care and housing, higher wages, climate spending, and jobs.

Prioritize Concrete Impacts

The broader lesson is familiar to organizers and socialists: prioritizing how people’s lives will actually improve — instead of technocratic policy vagaries — is smart and necessary to winning policies that expand freedom and equality for all people. This lesson should also be the primary focus of policy entrepreneurs across the country working on ballot campaigns.

This idea can be central to other projects too, including left candidates running for office, social movements pushing specific policy demands, and legislators introducing bills. This is likely one reason why the minimum wage has proven so popular, even winning majority support in states where Republicans usually win statewide elections: because the obvious, popular policy impact is baked into the policy design. Tuition-free public college also has this virtue.

Extending this lesson to other policy areas, it is a good idea not just to fight for “increased funding for housing,” for example (or health care or climate), but to prioritize policy designs that specify how people’s lives will change. For example, taxing the rich to guarantee rent decreases of 30 percent over five years, public health insurance coverage for specific health conditions, cutting public transit commute times in half and doubling routes, and so on.

Citizen ballot initiatives are by no means the only political channel to socialist policy victories and political power. They’re unfortunately only possible in roughly half the states, and big business can often spend millions to confuse voters about policy impacts. And to have the best chance of engaged volunteer bases and intense support, policy goals should come out of real grassroots organizing efforts.

As long as ballot initiatives are used responsibly and tactically, organizers and strategists should structure tax-the-rich policy choices to make the policy impacts extremely concrete and vivid. The Left would see more victories.