The US Presidential election cycle is long: the current cycle began on 23 March 2015, when US Senator Ted Cruz announced his candidacy. The 18-month cycle saturates the media, first in the US and then around the world as the general election approaches. The world is tired of hearing about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and their record unfavourable ratings of 59 per cent and 53.4 per cent do not help. They are, however, not the only individuals on the ballot: Candidates for Congress, Governorships, and State Legislatures are hitting the trail.

The elections that are going to have the most immediate impact on voters, however, are referendums taking place in states across the country. On ballots in different states, voters get to choose on a range of measures that prove states are the laboratories of democracy. Marijuana might be legal for another 33 million Americans, Washington may enact a carbon tax, Colorado may implement single-payer healthcare, Maine might radically alter its voting system, and California may put a cap on drug prices, to list only a few potential changes. This week’s column will look at a few of the game-changing initiatives on the ballot.

Colorado Single-Payer Healthcare

America’s healthcare system ignites passionate debate on both sides of the aisle. The debate grew fever pitch ever since the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), or ‘Obamacare,’ as it is popularly called. While the two parties have opposing views on healthcare, neither believes in single-payer, government-funded healthcare. In this election, Coloradans will vote on replacing ‘Obamacare’ with a state-funded, Medicare-for-all system. Coloradans will have access to free government healthcare, as is the norm in developed countries around the world.

As one might suspect, however, free government services come at a steep cost. To fund ‘ColoradoCare,’ Colorado will enact the greatest tax increase in its history, leaving it with the highest tax rates in the country. Indeed, it will install an increase of 10% on payroll taxes and another 10 per cent on non-payroll income. Proponents of ‘ColoradoCare’ argue it will reduce costs for 80 per cent of Coloradans by reducing out-of-pocket expenses that stem from deductibles and co-pays.

Mark Buckawicki

Image courtesy of Mark Buckawicki, © 2013, some rights reserved.

It’s a debate worth having: can a state afford such a major undertaking? There are also administrative challenges to consider: ‘ColoradoCare’ will replace the ACA, institute a completely new healthcare system that will eliminate the current insurance exchange and install an elected board of trustees to oversee ‘ColoradoCare’. If the administrators overseeing the system are elected, they might have to respond to the changing winds of everyday politics, adding another uncertainty to the system.

All Republican officials and many Democrats in the State, including the Governor, oppose the initiative. Polls conducted in September show an average of 60.5 per cent of voters opposing the initiative. Opponents of the ballot measure, led by health insurance companies, have outspent the Yes campaign by $4 million to $900,000.

Nevertheless, if the measure passes, Coloradans will be first in the nation to have guaranteed access to healthcare.

Carbon Tax in Washington

Climate change is another hot-button topic in the United States, often because many elected officials deny its existence. Measures to battle climate change have largely failed in Congress. However, states continue to lead the way in policy experiments.

This November, in order to reduce its carbon footprint, the State of Washington is proposing the institution of a carbon tax. Modelled on its Canadian neighbour to the north, British Columbia, the tax strives to be revenue-neutral. It plans to raise taxes on carbon emissions at their source by $15 per metric ton in 2015, and gradually increasing it to $100 per metric ton. To offset the increases, it would reduce sales tax, certain manufacturing taxes, and increase a low-income state tax exemption.

The proposal has invited roused support and opposition. Supporters say a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most economically friendly way to fight climate change. The ballot measure has also received endorsements from many economists, businesses, climate activists, and newspapers. Some Republicans have endorsed the measure as well, most notably George Schultz, former Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Climate Solutions argue that the measure does not go far enough and does not invest in renewable energy. That position has met sharp rebuke from the Washington Post and some members of the Sierra Club, who argue that the groups are making ‘the perfect the enemy of the good.’

Polls conducted in October show support for the measure, though many remain decided. Once more, if the measure passes, a carbon tax will be a first in the United States. Unlike healthcare, where access is guaranteed in developed nations, the climate change debate is still being fought. States like Washington may show the way in fighting climate change in an economically feasible way.

The common element between these two ballot measures is that they would both stand little or no change of passing in the United States Congress. The political atmosphere is too divided and the rhetoric too toxic for such change. Regardless of whether one agrees with these proposals, their implementation, even in a single state, would represent sweeping reforms from the current policies on healthcare and climate change.

This election cycle has focused squarely on the candidates running for president, first in the primaries and now in the general elections. The next American president will, to a certain extent, have the power to shape the country and influence the world. But local initiatives on the 2016 ballot, proposing radical changes to existing systems and institutions around the country, will immediately alter the way people live. With these developments in mind, it is easy to understand why states are called the ‘laboratories of democracy.’