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Voters Were Cautious – Not Conspicuous – “Consumers” of Government at Polls

November 20, 2012
By Pete Sepp

Now that the ballots in last week’s election have (mostly) been counted, the spinning among pundits is well underway. A commentator in Mother Jones echoed numerous voices on the left by wondering “whether and to what degree 2012 heralds the emergence of a new liberal consensus.” A writer in The Washington Times captured the angst of many on the right when he concluded, “The American people did not reject Obama’s far-left policies last night, but rather embraced them with open arms.” But these off-the-cuff observations don’t seem to describe the message from November 6. After all, exit polling from Associated Press showed that by a 51 percent- 43 percent margin Americans thought government was doing too much in society and the economy … a reversal from 2008. When it comes to understanding the complex message voters sent on Election Day, the results of ballot-measure elections offer helpful lessons to both the left and right wings.

California’s passage of a $6.8 billion annual income and sales tax hike seems on its face to be an “embrace” of the President’s tax-heavy approach to budget problems. But the measure, which passed with 53 percent, was sold as a temporary tax hike, using education as a cover. Plus, voters trounced a more radical $10 billion-a-year taxing and spending plan, and down the ballot, refused to play patsies for trendy policies like local taxes on soda. Earlier this year, Californians even rejected a plan to raise state cigarette taxes.

“Temporary” tax hikes do have a bad history of sticking around, but Arizona did just demonstrate that the trend can be bucked by the people in soundly defeating an attempt to extend a two-year sales tax hike.

Blue-trending states demonstrate they also care about the “green.” In New Hampshire, the site of a Democratic sweep, 57 percent of those going to the polls cast a ballot in favor of a permanent constitutional ban on a statewide income tax (the measure had to pass by two-thirds to win adoption).

It is true that comprehensive taxpayer protections lost at the 2012 ballot box in places like Michigan and Florida, but plans like these often fall short of passage as voters ponder whether the political establishment is capable of practicing its own restraint on taxing and spending. Such was the case with Maine voters in 2009, who turned down a shot at enacting a TABOR after they made their statement by repealing an onerous tax on beverages the year prior. Both Prop 13 and Colorado’s TABOR failed at the polls in various permutations before eventually getting the nod. This year, Washingtonians affirmed for the fifth time a law requiring two-thirds legislative or majority voter approval for higher taxes.   They also put a stricter cap on the state’s ability to take on more debt.

Furthermore, while the pundits play up the notion that Americans are deeply divided on issues like the “Buffett Rule,” citizens frequently unite on issues that literally hit closer to home, such as property taxes. Oklahomans voted to do away with their state’s tax on “intangible” property like patents, and put a 3 percent valuation growth cap on real estate property taxes. Other more modest measures slowing property tax growth or granting specific exemptions based on factors such as age or veteran status carried in places such as Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana.

These and past election results show that despite diverse political ideologies, many Americans have a philosophical leaning toward ballot measures that is conservative, generally preferring incremental change or the existing balance of fiscal power. When asked to approve periodic renewals of longstanding taxes, they often will. When asked to make permanent or extend tax schemes sold to them as temporary, they often won’t. Ballots shouldn’t be read like tea leaves, but the process of “direct democracy” helps make a murky electoral brew a lot clearer.