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Voters Decide Minimum Wage, Marijuana Ballot Measures


Figure this one out. Republicans won key races across the country last night. Many of the victors are strongly conservative. But in their campaigns, some of the winners worked to downplay or refrain their conservative credentials. And when voters cast ballots on issues, they gave many winds to causes often labeled as progressive. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports on a big night for the minimum wage and marijuana.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: In Washington, Republicans have opposed President Obama's call to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. But voters in Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Alaska voted to increase their state's minimum wage. And in Illinois, voters recommended that their legislature do so. Nebraska State Senator Danielle Conrad, a Democrat, was the campaign manager for the minimum wage measure in her state.

STATE SENATOR DANIELLE CONRAD: Despite good efforts on the federal level and despite efforts even here in our state legislature, we were unable to get any forward progress. And that's why a citizen initiative was an appealing tool to move the ball forward for working families.

JAFFE: The measure won overwhelmingly, and Conrad says it will benefit about 146,000 Nebraskans.

CONRAD: That's about 1 in 6 workers. It will help over 64,000 children that live in those families.

JAFFE: State minimum-wage hikes have never lost when they've been put before voters. Even some Republicans who oppose President Obama's call for a national wage increase back their own state measures. Conrad says in Nebraska, there was wide support.

CONRAD: Amongst women voters, male voters, younger voters, older voters, Republicans, Democrats, urban, rural.

JAFFE: Also popular with voters yesterday - marijuana. Oregon and Alaska voted to legalize it outright. The states can regulate it and tax it, and cultivation of small amounts for personal use will be legal for people 21 and over. Legalization advocate Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, says a victory in Oregon was remarkable, considering this was a midterm election.

ETHAN NADELMANN: These sorts of elections are notorious for having very low turnout of young people. So either young people showed up in unprecedented numbers or else a wide border range of Oregonians decided to vote in favor.

JAFFE: In Florida, 58 percent of voters favored legalizing medical marijuana. But that wasn't enough. The measure was a state constitutional amendment and needed to pass by 60 percent.

KEN SABET: I thought was pretty tremendous that it went down the way it did.

JAFFE: That's Dr. Ken Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which oppose the Florida measure. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly give Dr. Kevin Sabet's first name as Ken.]

SABET: I think that voters rejected the big loopholes that were in the actual amendment.

JAFFE: And some may have been persuaded by the $5 million that Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson spent to defeat the measure. Voters in Washington, D.C. also approved an initiative legalizing marijuana, but Congress gets the final say on that. All in all, legalization advocate Ethan Nadelmann is pretty optimistic.

NADELMANN: It's a validation of what Colorado and Washington did two years ago, and it means that the wind's at our back as we move forward nationally in California and a range of other states in 2016.

JAFFE: Abortion-rights advocates also had some victories. So-called personhood amendments were defeated in Colorado and North Dakota. Ballot measures granting legal rights to embryos have never succeeded, says Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute.

ELIZABETH NASH: Voters, when the questions is really put to them, they reject the idea that abortion should be completely banned, and they reject the idea that a fetus is a person at conception.

JAFFE: But Tennessee voters paved the way for possible new restrictions on abortion in that state. Finally, there were two high-profile gun initiatives, both of them in the state of Washington. An initiative that would have banned background checks beyond what's mandated nationally was defeated. Another called for extending background checks to all gun transactions, including those at gun shows. It passed overwhelmingly. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 4, 2014 at 11:00 PM CST
We incorrectly give Dr. Kevin Sabet's first name as Ken.
Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."