Upping the Ante: Will Midterm Elections Be a Boon to Low-Wage Workers?

Four ballot initiatives could mean more money for people earning the minimum wage.

A union worker at Los Angeles' Langer's Deli. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Nov 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

Last week, President Obama campaigned in Providence, R.I., for an increase of the federal minimum wage, which he’s asked Congress to bump up to $10.10 an hour. Obama’s first job was minimum wage work—at Baskin-Robbins. “And that was OK,” he told the crowd before pointing out that today, many people making minimum wage are in their 30s.

Despite spirited campaigns to increase pay for low-income workers across the country, the minimum wage has remained stagnant in many places. On Nov. 4, voters in four states will decide whether to give the 3.3 million workers who earn at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour a boost. In the United States, 47 percent of these low-wage workers are employed in food preparation or the service industry, and 14.5 percent work in retail. Most live in the South.

Some Democrats are hoping these ballot initiatives will encourage higher turnout among left-leaning voters. They seem likely to pass—though The New York Times pointed out that the polling organization involved, Public Policy Polling, has a “historically liberal tilt.”

Here are the ins and outs of the four ballot initiatives that could bring a welcome bump in wages for low-income workers as soon as Jan. 1:

Alaska

Alaska was the first state to have a minimum wage that was higher than the federal one; it was passed in 1938 and has been incrementally climbing since then. Alaska’s base pay now is $7.75. But every city in Alaska has a higher-than-average cost of living. The state also has a lower poverty rate and a higher median household income than the rest of the country.

The current ballot initiative was supported by the political action coalition Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage, which spent about $200,000 and obtained around 43,000 signatures from residents. If the ballot measure passes, it will raise the minimum wage to $8.75 an hour on Jan. 1, 2015, and then raise it again to $9.75 the following year.

Arkansas

Minimum-wage workers in Arkansas earn the federal wage of $7.25 an hour. The state’s minimum wage is $6.25; it hasn’t gone up since 2006. This ballot measure, if it passes, would raise that to $7.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2015, $8 on Jan. 1, 2016, and $8.50 on Jan. 1, 2017.

In two polls on the issue, more than 75 percent of respondents said they supported the ballot measure.

It has vocal critics, however. Jackson T. Stephens Jr., founder of a biotechnology company called Exoxemis, tried to sue to get the measure removed, according to The New York Times. He said a notary’s signature had been forged on the ballot initiative paperwork, but his complaint was rejected, and he gave up the fight.

“This is an overwhelmingly popular initiative,” Stephens said. “This thing is going to pass whether I jump up and down or spend all my money.”

Nebraska

A bill introduced in January to raise the minimum wage stalled when 20 state senators supported it and 20 opposed it. Republican Sen. Bill Kintner said defeating the bill was “a victory for free-market capitalism.”

State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, the Democrat who proposed the legislation, then worked to get a minimum-wage increase on Tuesday’s ballot.

He succeeded—and may inadvertently help with another statewide race too. The Lincoln Journal Star said the measure could give Chuck Hassebrook, a Democrat running for governor, an advantage in the gubernatorial race.

South Dakota

Minimum-wage workers in South Dakota make $7.25. If this ballot initiative passes, their wages will be bumped up to $8.50 in the New Year. The South Dakota ballot initiative would increase base hourly pay for tipped workers too. Currently they earn $2.13, the federal minimum for tipped workers, but if the measure passes, that would double, and they’d start making $4.25.

People in Nebraska, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Alaska who care about higher wages have a clear reason to hit the polls on Nov. 4, but not every proposed minimum-wage increase got enough signatures to make it onto Tuesday’s ballot. You won’t see a ballot measure like this in Washington, Louisiana, Idaho, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, or New Mexico.

In Illinois, voters on Tuesday will be asked whether they support raising the minimum wage—which is $8.25 an hour—to $10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2015. This is not a binding vote. Instead, it’s called an “advisory question,” and the Chicago Tribune reported that the intention is to get Democratic voters to the polls.