6 Ways Americans Voted Against Corporate Power in the Most Expensive Midterm Elections Ever

So the national elections didn’t go so well. But across the country—from California to North Dakota—citizens made decisions that will give you reason to hope.

Deep breaths, everyone. The midterm election didn’t exactly go how many people hoped. The Democrats’ loss of the Senate could mean a Congress that’s a lot friendlier to things like the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and the adoption of sweeping new trade deals.

But don’t despair just yet.

In a few statewide ballot measures and local elections, Americans voted against corporate interests, embracing progressive policies (and even a couple progressive politicians). They endorsed protecting the environment from oil and gas companies, getting corporate money (like the record $3.76 billion spent during this midterm election) out of politics, and favoring local businesses over chain stores.

Here are six local victories that got us excited.

United States Capitol Building. Photo by Eric B. Walker / Flickr.

1. People in Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois—and a whole lot of Wisconsinites—voted to overturn Citizens United

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United, deciding that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns. This allows them to put mass amounts of money into causes that benefit business, but not necessarily citizens.

The “Democracy for All” constitutional amendment, which would restrict companies’ campaign funding, did not pass when it came before the Senate in September. But yesterday, voters in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Florida voted for ballot measures to officially support an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision.

In many counties throughout the five states, the referendum passed with a vast majority. In Sharon, Massachusetts, 75 percent of voters wanted Citizens United gone, while 77 percent did in Wassau County, Wisconsin. The potential amendment has now been brought before voters in 54 communities in Wisconsin. Those communities make up 41 percent of the state’s population.

“Big money has such a big influence in election and government, moving us away from democracy,” said John C. Bonifaz, president of Free Speech for People. “The general rule in an election is that money equals power and that it drowns out the power of ordinary citizens … The movement to overturn Citizens United is needed more than ever.”

Fracking site near Shreveport Louisiana. Photo by Daniel Foster / Flickr.

2. Counties and towns in California, Ohio, and Texas banned fracking

Residents in four counties and towns in California, Texas, and Ohio voted against the interests of gas corporations yesterday by passing fracking bans.

Chevron Corporation and Occidental Petroleum contributed $7.7 million to fight anti-fracking measures in Mendocino, San Benito, and Santa Barbara counties in California. They only defeated one of them, in Santa Barbara.

In Mendocino County, voters adopted a Community Bill of Rights, a law guaranteeing citizens the right to clean air and water—and ecosystems the right to exist and flourish. Under the new law, fracking is a violation of those rights, as is the extraction or sale of water for use in fracking anywhere in the state. With more than two-thirds of Mendocino County voters in favor, the initiative passed easily.

Across the country in Athens, Ohio, citizens passed a similar Community Bill of Rights by an even larger margin, with 78 percent voting in favor. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a public-interest law firm focusing on environmental issues, has long been advocating for the passage of similar bills throughout the country (more than 150 towns, cities, and counties across the U.S. have already adopted such policies).

“With this vote, the people of Mendocino are challenging a legal structure that protects a corporate ‘right’ to frack above the rights of communities to not be fracked,” the Fund’s Ben Price said on Global Exchange’s blog.

Fifty-seven percent of voters in San Benito, California, supported a referendum banning fracking. And, despite the roughly 275 active fracking wells in Denton, Texas, voters there approved a referendum to ban the practice.

Chevron Richmond Refinery. Photo by Scott Hess / Flickr.

3. Richmond, California, stood up to Chevron

Since a 2012 fire that sent 15,000 people to the hospital at Chevron’s Richmond refinery, Chevron and the City Council of Richmond have been on rocky terms. The City Council sued the oil giant for damages caused by the fire, and the company and council have been in negotiation battles for years over proposed restrictions on the upgrade and expansion of the refinery.

So it may come as no surprise that Chevron spent around $3 million in the city council and mayoral races to try to get a friendlier slate of candidates elected. But the citizens of Richmond had something to say about that.

Tom Butt, a current city council member who spent just $58,000 on his campaign, beat the Chevron-backed candidate, Nat Barnes, 51 percent to 35 percent. Further, residents elected all three of the Richmond Progressive Alliance-supported city council candidates, against whom Chevron ran vicious campaign ads.

Photo by Shutterstock.

4. North Dakota decided to keep big-box pharmacies out

In a North Dakota referendum, Walmart spent about $7 million attempting to overturn a 1963 law preventing chain pharmacies from operating in the state. It was a move that many believed threatened the viability of the state’s thriving independent pharmacies. Yesterday, North Dakota voters upheld the decades-old law, putting many local pharmacists at ease.

“Now, especially rural pharmacists can move on without so much anxiety [about losing their business],” said Mike Schwab, executive vice president of the North Dakota Pharmacists Association. Schwab said that, after the North Dakota House of Representatives rejected bills to overturn the pharmacy ownership law in 2009 and 2011, this week, citizens added their own voices to its support.

Old Capitol in Tallahassee Fl. Photo by Ariana / Flickr.

5. Tallahassee passed an anti-corruption campaign spending law

Sixty-seven percent of voters in Tallahassee, Florida, supported a referendum to amend the city charter, imposing campaign contribution limits on a local level. From now on, donations cannot exceed $250 per donor. Contributors will receive a small tax rebate, and the city plans to create an ethics board and take other steps to ensure ethical practices, like monitoring conflicts of interest for politicians.

The referendum is called the Anti-Corruption Act and was created by a national group called Represent.Us, which aims to change the rules around lobbying and transparency in politics. It also had bipartisan support, with allies from Common Cause to Tea Party groups.

Represent.Us intends to push this strategy outward and upward, starting at the local level in other cities and ultimately taking aim at the federal government.

“This was the big field test for our theory,” Represent.Us CEO Josh Silver told The Huffington Post of what he hoped to learn from the Tallahassee victory. He said his organization will promote several similar city referendums in the next two years, as well as two statewide ballot initiatives in 2016.

Photo by Shutterstock.

6. Berkeley chose a tax on sugary beverages linked to obesity

Berkeley, California, is the first city to adopt a special tax on sugary beverages. Seventy-five percent of voters yesterday decided drinks containing added sugar—like juice and soda—will now be taxed 1 cent per ounce. These sweet drinks have been linked to rising obesity rates throughout the country.

San Francisco had a similar measure on the ballot—taxing 2 cents per sugary ounce, twice as much as Berkeley. Passing it required a two-thirds majority vote, which didn’t happen.

The American Beverage Association spent more than $11 million campaigning against the tax in the two cities, with $9 million of it focused on San Francisco, where the initiative was voted down.

“Berkeley has a proud history of setting nationwide trends, such as non-smoking sections in restaurants and bars, curb cuts for wheelchairs, curbside recycling and public school food policies,” said Vicki Alexander, co-chair of a group that campaigned to pass the tax, in a statement.


Mary Hansen
Mary Hansen is a reporter for NPR Illinois and a former contributing writer for YES!
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Kayla Schultz
Kayla Schultz is a former online editorial intern for YES!
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