In light of the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, many fear that their votes will be swept aside by the overwhelming power of big corporations and the superwealthy.
Voters in the Washington city of SeaTac raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Money did have a decisive influence on many of Tuesday's races. The infusion of a record-setting $22 million from such corporate giants as Monsanto, Nestlé, DuPont, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola triumphed over the largely grassroots campaign in favor of labeling GMO foods in Washington state.
In some other races, though, old-fashioned people power showed that democracy isn't dead yet.
1. New York's new mayor and the Working Families Party
Bill de Blasio's election as mayor of New York brings to power a candidate who put tackling income inequality at the center of his campaign. His track record shows he's serious about working for a progressive agenda aimed at lifting up the poor.
The story of his election is also the story of the rise of the Working Families Party, which has combined sustained grassroots organizing with "fusion voting." (Fusion voting allows people to vote for a major-party candidate on a third-party ballot line. This allows voters to express their support for a third-party platform without taking votes away from a "lesser evil" candidate and causing the spoiler effect. For example, a candidate can run as both a Democrat and as endorsed by the Working Family Party.) This approach has given voice and clout to a large progressive community in New York and made it a major player in the political process.
Politico put it this way in a column anticipating the election results:
Tuesday, voters in America’s most prominent city are poised to elect Bill de Blasio mayor and turn over every major lever of municipal government to a new breed of politics that’s been on the rise but never close to this level of power: a mix of young progressives, reconstituted '60s- and '70s-era lefties, newly active minority voters and deep-pocketed unions.
Politico goes on to identify the people behind the Working Families Party and Occupy Wall Street as the new power in New York.
2. Minimum wage laws win
New Jersey voters increased the state minimum wage by a dollar to $8.25 with automatic cost-of-living increases. Voters in the Washington city of SeaTac raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, well above the state minimum wage, $9.19, which is already the highest in the nation.
The votes indicate a sentiment widespread among Americans: Those who work should be paid enough to live in dignity.
The erosion of union clout, the rising power of corporate employers, and trade agreements that facilitate job flight have all shifted power away from working people. Stagnating wages and poverty are the result.
Rarely do voters have a chance to weigh in on this question, but at least in this election, they spoke clearly about the right of workers to be paid a living wage.
3. Fracking bans win in Colorado
Opponents of fracking won in three of the four cities where it was on the ballot in Colorado. The outcome of the fourth initiative is too close to call.
In Ohio, a fracking ban appears to be passing in Oberlin but failing in Youngstown and Bowling Green.
The Colorado victories come in spite of the $878,120 the Colorado Oil and Gas Association had poured into the campaign as of the end of October, according to the Denver Post. Anti-fracking groups spent just over $26,000 during that time.
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Tuesday's votes bring the number of local jurisdictions that have adopted fracking bans across the United States to nearly 400, according to the advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
Laws adopted by local jurisdictions may be overruled by state or federal laws. But local groups are signaling a willingness to take on powerful oil and gas interests and the state and federal officials who side with them.
Voters in Boulder, Colo., also voted down a measure that would have put a halt to the formation of their newly approved public utility.
4. Voters elect opponents of new coal terminal
Efforts to build massive new energy infrastructure, like pipelines and coal terminals, are controversial, but rarely is there an opportunity for voters to have a say.
One such opportunity came in a closely watched county commission race in northwestern Washington, where early results indicate that voters have elected four progressive candidates who, though officially neutral, are believed to oppose the building of a giant new coal export terminal. The project is controversial in part because of the immediate damage to air and water that would would result from transporting 48 million tons per year from Wyoming to the Pacific Coast in open train cars. But the global implications go further, because burning that much coal would release roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide each year at a time when scientists say we must drastically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
The lesson from this election? Big money is still distorting our democracy, reducing the ability of ordinary people to influence policy. Still, with sustained, smart organizing—independent of the big political parties—important progress is still possible via the ballot box.