The Most Important Election Results You Missed

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In this week’s main events, Republicans flipped Virginia and nearly snatched New Jersey. Less high-profile, but still national news: Progressives seized Boston’s mayorship and floundered in Buffalo, while Minneapolis voters rejected a measure to replace the city’s police department.

But further under the radar, far down on the ballot, were dozens of other local electoral battles that will shape policy for years to come and will ultimately have the biggest effects on people’s lives. They also typically signal emerging political trends, offering a window into where the national scene is likely headed.

Here are five key election outcomes to keep an eye on.

The War on Drugs Continues to Crumble

The Biden administration is stalling changes to how the federal government approaches drugs, even marijuana, but voters are on a different plane. In Detroit on Tuesday, voters passed an initiative that decriminalizes the possession of psychedelics by a large margin, 61 to 39 percent.

That follows last year’s ballot initiatives to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of any drugs in Oregon and the possession of psychedelics in Washington, D.C.

District attorneys are also finding political success in embracing this stance. Victorious prosecutor candidates in Manhattan, Philadelphia and Norfolk, Virginia, ran on getting criminal courts out of drug laws to a greater extent than they have in the past, or at least deescalating these laws’ enforcement.

Marijuana was on the ballot too this week. A string of Ohio towns decriminalized it within their borders and drastically lowered possible penalties. They were not in a position to outright legalize marijuana since that would take statewide action, but the victories could speed up such reform. Last month, in this Republican-run state, two GOP lawmakers filed a bill to legalize marijuana.

The Minimum Wage Gets a Bump in Arizona

Sen. Krysten Sinema’s theatrical thumbs-down helped doom an increase in the federal minimum wage in March. Now voters in Tucson, the state’s second biggest city and a key base for Democratic candidates, took matters into their own hands.

By a 65 to 35 percent vote, they approved an initiative to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. The measure was placed on the ballot by local organizations who say it will apply to 85,000 workers.

Minimum wage referendums regularly triumph irrespective of the rest of an area’s politics — last year, Floridians hiked theirs to $15 on the same day they voted for Donald Trump. But in her next election, Sinema could very well face a primary challenge where the politics of labor resonate differently. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a progressive who represents parts of Tucson in Congress, has frequently warned her to not forget her base.

The People Get a Say Over the Budget

The people of Boston will soon have a direct say in how public funds are spent. In approving Question 1, voters required the city to create an Office of Participatory Budgeting and to set up a process by which residents will control the distribution of a portion of the city’s budget.

Besides setting up a participatory process, Question 1 also dilutes the power of Boston’s traditionally strong mayor by strengthening the city council’s role in the budget. Notably Michelle Wu, the progressive candidate who won Boston’s mayoral runoff on Tuesday, had endorsed Question 1 during the campaign, saying participatory budgeting could help “rewrite the rules around who has a say on how money is spent in our city.”

Other U.S. cities have begun implementing similar processes. Last year, Seattle reallocated millions from the police budget, asking residents to decide how to spend it to create “true public health and safety.”

Local Courts Become the Next Frontier in Criminal Justice Reform

Court systems across the country are labyrinthine and opaque, with little attention typically paid toward the powerful local judges who wield great sway in deciding who sits in jail, who to evict and how harsh to make bail.

This year, in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh), progressive groups made a concerted effort to change that. They promoted a slate of eight candidates for the county’s Court of Common Pleas, which handles criminal matters; the candidates vowed to use their discretion to shorten prison sentences and reduce pretrial detention.

Five of the candidates on this progressive slate prevailed in the Democratic primary in May, and all five won the general election on Tuesday and are headed for the bench.

Among these incoming judges is Lisa Middleman, a former public defender who ran for district attorney in 2019. I talked to her at the time about her platform that called for ending cash bail and mandatory minimum sentencing. Middleman lost then to an incumbent DA who remains in office and has pursued far more punitive policies on which she’ll now get to weigh in as a judge.

But further up the state’s judicial ballot, it’s Republicans who scored wins.

A statewide election was set to decide the partisan balance on Pennsylvania’s 15-member Superior Court, which hears appeals on most criminal matters. (Each party currently holds seven seats.) GOP nominee Megan Sullivan, a former prosecutor, prevailed in that election, in what was a good night overall for her party: Republicans also won the state’s sole election for the state Supreme Court, though Democrats will keep a 5-2 majority on that highest court.

Squalid Jail Conditions Get Scrutiny

The New Orleans jail has been under a consent decree with the federal government for years over its dismal confinement conditions, and federal monitors said last month that the jail had grown less compliant. In New York’s Erie County (home to Buffalo), a series of deaths in the county jail fueled lawsuits and local organizing against jail conditions there.

In both places, the elected sheriff is responsible for jails, and the issue has been central to those campaigns.

Erie County’s sheriff race remains too close to call as of publication; Republican John Garcia, who was endorsed by the outgoing Republican sheriff Timothy Howard, holds a lead over Democrat Kimberley Beatty, who had vowed some improvements to jail conditions such as ending solitary confinement.

In New Orleans, Democratic sheriff Marlin Gusman, who has said courts hold him to too high a standard, is up for reelection next week; the jail and what one challenger called its “backsliding” has been an issue.

Meanwhile, New York City, one of the few jurisdictions that has no sheriff, has seen a surge of investigations in recent weeks on the “abject” and “hellish” conditions inside Rikers Island. Newly-elected mayor Eric Adams said this week he agreed with outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio that dealing with the conditions on Rikers called for lifting a ban on solitary confinement, but it’s unclear whether he’ll make it a priority.

And Don’t Forget

A former Chris Christie aide involved in the Bridgegate scandal lost her bid for a political comeback.

The Trumpy sheriff of New Mexico’s most populous county challenged the mayor of Albuquerque and lost handily.

All four members of a Wisconsin school board facing a recall election amid attacks on “Critical Race Theory” survived. Elsewhere, the results of conservative efforts to flip school boards were mixed.

Texans adopted a constitutional amendment that bars public authorities from restricting religious services, in a backlash to Covid-19 restrictions.

St. Paul, Minn., adopted one of the strongest rent control ordinances in the country.

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