In Deep Red South Dakota and Nebraska, voters used ballot initiatives to curb inequality

That fall, in the run-up to the midterm elections, a group of Catholic nuns, Protestant ministers, and other faith leaders toured South Dakota in what they dubbed a “Love Your Neighbor Tour.”

They stopped at grocery stores, restaurants, senior centers, libraries and other community gathering places to engage with people about health insurance. They heard story after story from family members, friends and neighbors who are struggling to afford quality health care.

The goal of this tour: to build support for a campaign to help more South Dakotans get the care they need.

Such initiatives allow citizens to bypass elected officials who have separated from their constituents.

At this year’s election, voters in more than 30 states engage in this form of direct democracy. These voters raised taxes on the wealthy in Massachusetts and Los Angeles, funded universal preschool and childcare in New Mexico, and cracked down on Arizona’s health insurance debt.

In South Dakota, the “Love Your Neighbor” campaign was a huge hit. By a margin of 56 to 44, voters approved a proposal to force their state government to expand Medicaid eligibility, a move that will help an estimated 42,500 working-class people get care.

These people make too much to qualify for the state’s existing Medicaid program, but too little to access private insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Since 2010, the federal government has covered 90 percent of the costs when states expand Medicaid but politicians step in South Dakota and 11 other states have rejected this.

This isn’t the first time South Dakoto residents have employed effective people-to-people organizing and balloting strategies for the benefit of their neighbors.

In 2016, a bipartisan coalition with strong faith community support achieved an incredible victory against financial predators, winning 76 percent support for a ballot introduce a 36 percent interest rate cap on payday loans. Previously, those interest rates in South Dakota had averaged about 600 percent, trapping many low-income families in a downward spiral of debt.

This mid-election season, Nebraska offers another inspiring example of citizen action to bypass out-of-touch politicians.

For 13 years now, Congressional Republicans have blocked efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, leaving it stuck at $7.25 since 2009. The entire Nebraska congressional delegation — all Republicans — has consistently spoken out against minimum wage increases. Rep. Adrian Smith, for example, recently attacked President Biden’s $15 minimum proposal as “economically harmful.”

Nebraskans see things differently.

Voters there approved a state minimum wage increase to the same level Biden has proposed — $15 an hour — through 2026. The measure she sailed through with 58 percent supportmeans bigger paychecks for about 150,000 Nebrascans.

About the author