Electing people to Congress is great and all, but there are few things more thrilling than voting on a ballot initiative. Dubbed by some as “The Year of the Proposition,” Utah voters potentially passed three ballot initiatives Tuesday, making their voices heard on issues that lawmakers have long kicked around—medical cannabis, Medicaid and gerrymandering.
With votes still being counted through Wednesday, Propositions 2 and 3 were on their way to passing with margins of around 50,000 votes. Proposition 4, meanwhile, held a slim margin of just more than 50 percent.
Below is a look at what took place at Utah’s watch parties for Propositions 2, 3 and 4. Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill, spotted at one of these soirées, had choice words for lawmakers who have long failed to reach a consensus on any of these topics before voters stuck it to ’em in the 2018 midterms: “A ballot initiative at the end of the day, is an indictment of the failure of our legislators to show up and do their jobs.”
Prop 2: Medical Cannabis
While hundreds of Proposition 2 supporters danced and reveled at downtown’s Infinity Event Center, a smaller gathering of the same proposition’s supporters came together at the University Park Marriott Hotel to celebrate a long-fought-for victory.
The proposition, also known as the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, would permit the use of cannabis to help treat various ailments and illnesses. Wednesday morning, 53.16 percent of voters approved of Prop 2, while 46.84 percent opposed the measure.
Standing in front of the crowd more than 100 strong, Christine Stenquist, founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) fought back tears reflecting on the years-long fight to not only get medical cannabis on the ballot, but to get it passed as well.
“Being able to vote on medical cannabis in Utah, that is amazing,” Stenquist later told City Weekly. “Win or lose, we’ve done something amazing here in Utah and I’m hopeful that it sends a message to the rest of the country that it’s time to move on federal scheduling, de-scheduling and decriminalizing cannabis.”
The two watch parties for Prop 2 reflect recent developments in the medical cannabis fight. Last month, lawmakers, proponents and opponents of the initiative announced a “compromise bill” that would be discussed in a special session following the midterm election, regardless of Prop 2’s outcome. Left out of those discussions, though, was Stenquist and TRUCE.
Stenquist told the Deseret News she and her group “were kept in the dark for weeks that this was even happening.”
On the eve of the election, an updated bill was released that would require patients to undergo criminal background checks, among other requirements, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Now, as TRUCE and other groups prepare for the next step in the medical cannabis debate—the special session—Stenquist hopes to “have a seat at the table.”
“My concern is that during the special session we won’t have enough legislators who are supportive enough of our efforts and our desires ...” Stenquist said. “I’m concerned that they’re appeasing the opposition and not the proponents.
“The people that are wanting access should be talking about what state access looks like, not law enforcement saying, ‘This is what a patient needs access to,’ and I’m concerned those are the voices not being heard.”
More than 404,000 Utah voters made their voices heard in favor of Prop 2, though. Joe Russo, a Utah voter who suffers from a traumatic brain injury and benefits from the use of CBD and medical cannabis, said Prop 2’s approval will hold the Legislature’s “feet to the fire.”
“It’s been four years in the making, so they’ve had their chance to get something done and they haven’t,” Russo said while watching results come in. “I’m a patient and there’s a lot of patients that need it more than I do, and that’s what this vote is really about, taking care of the people in need.”
Doug Rice, vice president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah and TRUCE board member, said the process has “been an emotional roller coaster.” Rice has a 26-year-old daughter who suffers from PURA Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that includes seizures. CBD has cut down on the number of seizures she has daily, but Rice says medical cannabis can help even more. The fact it came down to a citizen ballot initiative, he said, is an “indictment of our legislative process” and that the Legislature “is not doing what the people have wanted them to do.”
“Hopefully, it opened up the eyes of the people that are making the laws,” Rice said. “I’m tired of being patted on the head and told, ‘There, there, don’t you worry about it. We’re here to make these laws for you and we know what we’re doing.’ Well, no, they don’t know what they’re doing and I think this is exactly what it has shown.”
Russo voiced a similar feeling and said he’s wary of what the Legislature might do next. “There’s plenty of examples where they say they’re going to do certain things, then things change,” he said.
While one fight in Utah’s medical cannabis future has passed, those at Tuesday’s watch party know there’s more to do.
“It’s unfortunate that the Legislature is so worried about losing their power to the people they’re supposed to be representing that they feel the need to create this compromise when it hasn’t been much of a compromise at all,” Rice said. “It’s been more or less, ‘This is what we’re willing to give you and you should be happy with it,’ but this by no means is not over.”
Prop 3: Medicaid Expansion
RyLee Curtis had tears in her eyes when early results for Proposition 3 were first published Tuesday night on the state’s election website. “Seeing those numbers makes it real,” the Utah Decides campaign manager said.
The vote was the culmination of six years’ worth of work for Curtis and her colleagues. As of publishing time, 54 percent of voters approved of Prop 3, which would extend Medicaid coverage to about 150,000 low-income Utahns, while 45 percent were opposed.
Should the initiative pass, the Beehive State would join the more than 30 others that have expanded Medicaid thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Individuals who earn less than about $17,000 per year, or families of four whose annual income is around $34,000, would be granted health coverage.
The federal government will pay 90 percent of the cost. To cover the state’s portion, Utah’s sales tax rate on non-food items will rise to 4.85 percent, from 4.7 percent. Curtis said the tax and expanded Medicaid enrollment will begin in April 2019.
Legislators passed a bill in their last session that would have partially expanded Medicaid coverage to individual Utahns who earn about $12,000 a year, so long as they fulfill a work requirement. But the state needed a federal waiver in order to partially expand Medicaid, a requirement the feds did not grant before Tuesday’s ballot initiative.
State lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert have spoken out against full Medicaid expansion, warning that passing Prop 3 could hurt the state’s budget and cut funding from education or Health and Human Services programs. And Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, recently threatened to push a bill in the next legislative session that would undo the voters’ approval of full expansion. “With the public vote, I don’t think that that’s sacrosanct,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune last month.
Curtis said she was optimistic lawmakers wouldn’t roll back full expansion, given the will of the voters. “It’s going to be really hard. Utahns are going to make their voice loud and clear what they want to see happen with health care in the state of Utah.”
Prop 3 supporters gathered at Rico Foods’ Warehouse as votes were tallied late into the night. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill was among those in attendance. Gill, who had his own re-election race that evening, spoke passionately about the need for Medicaid expansion and the intersection between access to health care and criminal justice. He told City Weekly that, at any time, between 60 to 65 percent of people in the county jail would benefit from medical care, mental health services and treatment for substance abuse.
Gill said all the statewide initiatives on voters’ midterm ballots, but especially Prop 3, say a lot about legislators’ inability to listen to the will of the people and approve bills that pertain to issues important to Utahns statewide. “When this pases, it’s an indictment of their deaf ears to the cries and suffering of our citizens,” he said.
Curtis gave credit to the people who fall into the Medicaid gap—those who are ineligible for such coverage in Utah but who make too little money to qualify for federal subsidies to purchase insurance under the ACA—who shared their stories with reporters, elected officials and the general public. They humanized complex topics by telling people what it’s like to not qualify for health coverage they desperately needed. “That is what made the difference in this campaign: their stories,” Curtis said.
Community activist Grant Burningham is one of those people. “I’m in the gap,” he said, explaining that he’d been sick before the ACA was passed. (He declined to name or explain his illness.)
Burningham said he was a little worried lawmakers would try to undermine the ballot initiative in an upcoming legislative session, but he still found solace in the preliminary results.
“It’s a good night for Utah voters,” he said. “It’s very clear that, even in Utah, the biggest concern among the people is health care.”
Before many results were even being reported, Bill Delaney was not feeling confident about Proposition 4. Despite widespread public support—likely Utah voters favored the initiative by a 58 to 22 percent margin, according to a poll by the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and The Salt Lake Tribune—Delaney was worried. “This is Utah,” he said. When would he feel better about the chances? “When it’s in the bag.”
As of Wednesday morning, it’s still not in the bag. Around 50 percent of voters are for Prop 4, compared to 49.71 percent opposed. If passed, a seven-member independent, citizen-led commission would recommend to the state new political boundaries for legislature, school board and U.S. Congressional races after the federal Census in 2020.
Jeff Wright, the Republican co-chairman of the Better Boundaries Initiative, also known as Prop 4, said he was cautiously optimistic. “I think our message has resonated with people across the state, across party lines.”
Ralph Becker, the Better Boundaries Democrat co-chairman, former minority leader of the state House and ex-Salt Lake City mayor, said early in the night that he was confident in the polling, predicting voters would respond favorably to establishing an independent body that would give them more confidence in their elections. “It’s not a partisan effort,” Becker said. “It’s an effort to improve the way our democracy works.”
Gigi Brandt, program vice president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, said her organization has held a position supporting an independent redistricting commission since 1980. Just seeing Prop 4 on the ballot was a dream, let alone its potential approval. Should it pass, Brandt theorized that the independent commission could restore confidence to the political process and increase voter turnout. “When people feel like their vote doesn’t count, they don’t participate.”
There wasn’t much organized opposition to the effort. “It’s difficult to defend gerrymandering,” Wright said. But Becker suggested state legislators might not be inclined to support the commission or its efforts, given that it could require them to give up certain advantages derived from choosing their own political boundaries. “This is not a one-sided thing,” he said of Republicans and Democrats. He’s even heard that state lawmakers might try to undermine the commission, if it’s established. “It’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing to go against the will of the voting public,” he said.
But as of Wednesday, it doesn’t appear the voting public’s will was especially decisive. The numbers are too close to call.
Prop 4 supporters packed up their party at Publik Coffee Roasters early Tuesday evening. Returns looked good, but Wright’s “cautious optimism” hung in the air as volunteers broke down “Yes on Prop 4” signs while votes were still being tallied in what was the closest proposition on the state’s ballot this election season.