by Ann C. Hodges, Professor of Law, University of Richmond
In one of the surprising results of election night, four traditionally Republican states passed ballot measures increasing the minimum wage. By significant margins, voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota adopted laws raising the minimum wage. Voters in the blue state of Illinois passed an advisory referendum urging the legislature to increase the minimum wage, while at the same time electing a Republican governor. In a state like Alaska, the high cost of living may have influenced voters, but that does not explain the outcome in the other states. What caused these somewhat anomalous results? After all, Republicans have traditionally opposed increases in the minimum wage and most continue to do so.
While speculation about the motivations of votes is always risky, these results appear to affirm the effectiveness of two recent strategies of workers’ rights advocates. First, it appears that voters are recognizing the serious inadequacy of the wages of low paid workers. The widely publicized demonstrations by low wage fast food and retail workers have raised public awareness and focused attention on the fact that many of these workers are adults, often with families that they are working hard to support.
If I am correct that the public protests helped motivate voters, it reminds us that strikes and demonstrations, which until recently had been largely abandoned by unions and other advocacy groups, remain effective at drawing public attention to inequalities. Social media has enhanced the ability to both organize and publicize demonstrations. Strategic use of these tactics will continue to keep these issues in the public eye.