Common sense. Shucking off old prejudices. Acting prudently. And humanely.
That’s the way, on a range of ballot-box issues, I saw American voters behaving Nov. 6.
Consider, for example, California’s vote to broaden and reinforce education. For several years, the state has been battered by a ferocious fiscal storm. Its universities and schools have been battered by budget cuts, their performance sinking. And a new loss of $6 billion in education spending was looming.
Gov. Jerry Brown decided the added cuts would be unconscionable. He staked his legacy on a ballot proposal to bolster the educational system in two ways — by raising sales taxes 0.25 percentage points, and by increasing income taxes for people earning more than $250,000 a year. Ferocious anti-tax opposition erupted, including about $11 million slipped into California by an obscure Arizona-based group.
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But the voters approved Brown’s initiative, 54 percent to 46 percent. The governor could claim a dramatic victory for California’s future. But he surely didn’t signal unfettered spending. Hours after the vote, he was warning the California Legislature to resist expanded budgets, to exercise “the prudence of Joseph” on spending.
A next breakthrough: reform of America’s notoriously ineffective (and prison-packing) drug laws. Washington and Colorado voters passed measures making their states the first in the United States to legalize marijuana — not just for medicinal use but for recreation as well.
Under the new laws, anyone 21 or older may possess up to an ounce of marijuana. And cannabis can be legally sold — and taxed — at state-licensed stores, much like many states’ liquor stores.
Plus, Massachusetts voters made theirs the 18th state to recognize marijuana for medical purposes.
Those votes likely mark “the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in this country,” asserts Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. He recalls that repeal of Prohibition actually began in the late 1920s with individual states overturning their own statutes banning alcohol.
The shift in national opinion is striking: In 2006, Gallup found only 36 percent of Americans favored legalized marijuana use. But by last year, the figure had jumped to 50 percent.
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper claims the new Colorado and Washington measures represent a decisive turn against the “40 years of the racist-destructive exercise in futility that is the war on drugs.” The big losers, he contends, are “drug cartels, street gangs, those who profit from keeping American incarceration rates the highest in the world.” His “winners,” by contrast, are “the rest of us,” including taxpayers, police and “all those who care about social justice.”
But what about the Obama administration, which has continued to prosecute marijuana cases, including medical marijuana? It didn’t weigh in against the initiatives removing the state bans — even though former drug czars and Drug Enforcement Agency heads urged it to do so. Politics helps to explain: Legalization is favored overwhelmingly by the young voter cadre that President Obama counted on for re-election. The mystery now is whether his second term will produce a “kinder, gentler” policy toward individuals’ use of marijuana, a substance that’s arguably far less dangerous to public health and safety than alcohol.
In another Election Day decision, California voters made a significant change in the state’s draconian “three strikes” law — life sentences for felony convictions, passed in the “tough on crime” era of the early 1990s. A controversial section of the law has permitted invoking the life sentence, even when a third conviction is for a minor offense. Thousands of offenders have been put behind bars for life even when their last offenses were as petty as stealing a piece of pizza or possessing a marijuana joint.
A dramatic vote for gay rights. Washington, Maryland and Maine became the first of the 50 states to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box. Concurrently, Minnesota voters turned down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in the state.
The votes represented a dramatic reversal of a 32-state streak of popular votes, starting in 1998, all for measures written to prohibit or seriously discourage gay marriage.
“The tide has turned,” Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign, a California-based group, told The Associated Press. “When voters have the opportunity to really hear directly from loving, committed same-sex couples and their families, they voted for fairness.”
I’d argue that Tuesday’s top-drawer votes go even further, identifying with fellow citizens’ needs and fates — evidence of rich citizenship whenever it occurs.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group
Neal Peirce’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org