Measures Raising Wages Pass Across the Board, in Red States and Blue, Sending Signal to Candidates as 2016 Election Cycle Kicks Off

WASHINGTON, DC—On Tuesday, voters in four states and three cities passed ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage for an estimated 609,000 low-wage workers. In two more states, voters approved non-binding referenda, instructing their legislators to raise the wage for another 1.1 million workers.  The near 100 percent success rate for the initiatives illustrates the increasing importance of wages to voters of all political stripes, and suggests that candidates’ opposition to higher wages may come at a high political price in the run-up to 2016.

The wage victories came as Republican candidates eked out enough wins to hand the party control of the Senate, an unsurprising development given conditions that favored Republicans – including the typically low turnout of midterm elections. The approval of ballot proposals on state and local minimum wages in spite of these political headwinds sends a clear message that wages are front and center for the electorate – which may have a decisive effect on the outcome of the 2016 general election, in which low-income individuals and others who heavily favor raising wages turn out in much higher numbers.

“What today’s midterm results say loud and clear is that voters will not simply toe the party line when it comes to economic issues, and in particular higher wages,” said Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Project Action Fund. “This is not a partisan issue for working folks, but a practical one. People understand that $7.25 is not nearly enough to make ends meet, and that wages must allow hard-working families to raise their children in economic security. This is a clear mandate for minimum and living wage proponents to soldier on until we have fair wages throughout the country, and a clear warning to opponents to change their minds quickly before 2016.”

Residents of five states – Alaska, Arkansas, three cities in California, Nebraska and South Dakota – cast a vote on their state or local minimum wages in binding ballot proposals that would increase the wage floor to anywhere from $8.50 to $15 (see Table 1), affecting 609,000 low-wage workers. In two more states – Illinois, and nine counties and four cities in Wisconsin – the referenda were non-binding, but if legislators follow through on the will of voters, over 1.1 million additional low-wage workers will receive a raise. The approval of ballot proposals in nearly all of these states and localities – including conservative strongholds Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – signals the increasing prominence of higher wages in a populist economic agenda that seeks to improve the broader economy from the bottom up.

“This is a victory for all hard-working Americans,” said Christine Owens. “It is not only hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers who would be better off – thanks to the support of their friends, families and neighbors who cast a vote in their favor – but American families as a whole will, too. When we raise the wage floor for our lowest paid workers, we improve compensation for better paid workers and boost our local and national economies. That is welcome news for everyone.”

Prior to the midterm elections, a poll commissioned by NELP Action Fund and conducted by Public Policy Polling in six states with highly competitive Senate or gubernatorial races found strong support for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour among likely voters. It also found that Republican candidates who opposed wage increases faced serious backlash for their opposition in the November 2014 elections and beyond.

Indeed, a new Public Policy Polling survey in 11 expected 2016 battleground states on behalf of NELP Action Fund and Americans United for Change suggests political peril for minimum wage opponents seeking national office in 2016.  60% of voters in these states support raising the minimum wage, as compared to 35% who oppose doing so, according to the poll.  The poll also found that voters in these states are less likely – by 18 points – to support candidates who oppose raising the minimum wage, and by a 17 point spread trust Democrats more on the issue.  These findings cast doubt on Republicans’ ability to maintain their hold on Congress and take back the White House in 2016 while continuing to oppose an increase in the minimum wage.

Table 1: States and Localities With 2014 Ballot Initiatives

State/Local Proposal Binding? Passed?
Wage Indexing?
Alaska $9.75 (by 2016) Yes Yes Yes
Arkansas $8.50 (by 2017) No Yes Yes
(3 cities)
Eureka $12.00 (by 2015) Yes Yes No
Oakland $12.25 (by 2015) Yes Yes Yes
San Francisco $15.00 (by 2018) Yes Yes Yes
Illinois $10.00 (by 2015) Yes No Yes
Nebraska $9.00 (by 2016) No Yes Yes
South Dakota $8.50 (by 2015) Yes Yes Yes
Wisconsin (9 counties and 4 cities)Counties: Dane, Douglas, Eau Claire, Kenosha, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Portage, Rock, Wood.

Cities: Appleton, Menasha, Neenah and Racine.

$10.10 Yes No Yes

National Employment Law Project Action Fund
For Immediate Release: Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Contact: Emma Stieglitz, [email protected], (646) 200-530