Elections in the West highlight divisions and diversity

Justice, power and environment: The 2020 elections were defined by grassroots organizing and deep partisanship.

DIVIDED
It’s fitting that a year that has lasted decades should culminate in a weeks-long Election Day. Perhaps the only truly bright spot was the political engagement: Over 150 million voters turned out in 2020, the highest percentage of the electorate in more than half a century. What the votes tell us, however, is much muddier. Throughout the country — and the Western United States — the electoral map beyond the presidential contest took a red shift. Previously purple Montana turned deep red, while Democrats won big-time federal elections in Arizona but stumbled at the state level. State and local races defied stereotypes, as Californians voted against better worker protections in the gig economy and Wyomingites voted to raise local taxes. Diverse coalitions played an outsized role. Arizona’s presidential race was swayed by Latino and Indigenous voters; in the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has seen its land and important cultural sites destroyed by the border wall, some voting precincts went 98% for President-elect Joe Biden. Latino voter turnout in Nevada buoyed the Biden campaign, but an increased share of Latinos voting for President Trump there illustrate how the Latino vote isn’t a monolith.

Races around the West will have ongoing impacts on people and nature here: How the lights stay on, who gets employment protections and which new leaders enter the fray were all on the ballot this year. Across the region, we highlight how the political sands are shifting and what the results will mean on the ground. As new leaders take office and new laws take effect, HCN will be here, covering the West’s response and holding a new set of politicians accountable.

Carl Segerstrom

 

ENVIRONMENT

CLIMATE
Coloradans voted to reduce the state income tax on Election Day, but when it comes to climate and conservation, it seems they are willing to open their wallets. In Denver, voters approved a sales tax increase that will fund clean energy projects and spawn renewable energy jobs while reducing utility bills in some areas. The money will also go to climate justice and environmental programs at the neighborhood level, with projects designed to help the low-income and Black and Latino communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and who, combined, comprise more than 40% of Denver’s population. The measure passed easily, with 62% voting yes. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, citizens voted for a property tax hike estimated to provide around $5 million annually to the Colorado River District, the main regulatory body for the watershed in the state. Faced with the twin pressures of development and the climate crisis, the agency will use the money to keep water on Colorado’s Western Slope, protect ecosystems and drinking water, and ensure water for farmers and ranchers. Elsewhere in the region, Nevada voters amended the state Constitution to require that utilities provide at least half of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. Nevadans passed the same amendment in 2018, but Silver State law mandates that voters pass constitutional amendments twice, which they did handily, though some environmental groups criticized it as locking in a too-slow transition to a fossil fuel-free energy mix.                      

—Nick Bowlin

UTILITY COMMISSIONS
Utility regulators, obscure but influential, play a crucial role in how electricity — and therefore greenhouse gases — are produced in the West by overseeing companies that generate electricity. Their job is to act as consumer advocates, but they can influence the energy mix in their states by supporting renewable energy or defending fossil fuel infrastructure. Montana, Arizona and New Mexico all elected new leaders this year.

In Montana, Republicans maintained their vise-like grip on the five-member Public Services Commission, winning all three seats up for election. The commission is key to determining the future of coal power in the West, especially as other states, including Washington, seek to force their utilities to wean themselves from Montana’s coal.

Arizona also trended red, with Republicans winning two of the three seats up for grabs on the Arizona Corporate Commission. In October, the commission passed aggressive energy targets requiring 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050; after the election it amended the targets to include energy savings and nuclear energy in an appeal to new board members.

In New Mexico, the two newly elected Democrats on the Public Regulation Commission won’t have time to get comfortable: New Mexicans also voted to disband the five-person commission, which has been an elected position since 1996. Starting in 2023,  the governor will select three people to serve on a board. Supporters of the constitutional amendment contended that governor-appointed commissioners will better understand byzantine utility-regulation laws and be less susceptible to being bought and paid for by industry; opponents had argued the amendment dilutes rural voices by concentrating power in the capital.       

Carl Segerstrom

NEW TAXES
In tax-averse Wyoming, multiple counties made the surprising choice to approve new measures to help pay for everything from hospitals and public facilities to infrastructure projects — a result of the state’s decimated budget as the fossil fuel economy collapses. In Sheridan, Niobrara and Crook counties, a 1% special purposes tax will fund $69 million in public projects. Lodging taxes, imposed on area hotels and motels to fund tourism marketing, rose to 4% in Campbell County. Several counties increased property tax mill levies and created new districts that will be funded through property taxes — including a new museum district in Saratoga, about 150 miles from the capital, Cheyenne, and a fire district in Lincoln County’s Star Valley. In Sublette County, the only county in the state without a hospital, residents voted to create a hospital district, which will cost taxpayers $19.53 annually. In Big Horn County, voters approved increases to property taxes for rural health care.   

—Victoria Petersen

GRAY WOLF REINTRODUCTION IN COLORADO
2020 was a big year for wolves in the West, even before Election Day. In late October, the Trump administration stripped their remaining federal protections, before fully returning management to the states and tribes in the Lower 48 for the first time since 1978. On Nov. 3, Coloradans narrowly passed a controversial ballot measure reintroducing gray wolves to western Colorado, which has 17 million acres of public land. The measure requires Colorado Parks and Wildlife to undertake a three-year restoration planning process. While the vote did not necessarily fall upon party lines, it split along a rural-urban cultural divide, passing by large margins in Front Range population centers and the Western Slope’s resort and recreation hubs while failing in rural ranching and farming counties. Opponents argued that the measure reduces complex wildlife management into “ballot box biology,” while supporters said the state has historically allowed farmers and hunters to have too much influence on the issue. Either way, wolves are returning to Colorado — but with few protections once they arrive.                             

—Eric Siegel

GOODBYE, BISHOP
For the first time in nearly two decades, a familiar and forceful voice in public-lands politics, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, won’t return to Congress. Bishop opted not to run for re-election to the House and failed in his primary bid to be Utah’s lieutenant governor. A staunch supporter of fossil fuels and the transfer of federal lands to state control and an enemy of the Endangered Species Act, Bishop has led the Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees public-lands management, since 2015. His departure leaves a power vacuum that Republicans from the conservative Western Caucus, which promotes local control of public-land management and the timber and fossil fuel industries, will likely vie to fill.                      

—Carl Segerstrom

POWER

AN INFLUX OF INDIGENOUS WOMEN IN POLITICS
Indigenous candidates, especially women, made gains at the federal, state and local level, increasing representation across the political spectrum. A record-breaking six Indigenous candidates were elected to Congress, including newcomer Republican Yvette Herrell (Cherokee) in New Mexico’s 2nd District and Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez in District 3. Together with re-elected Rep. Deb Haaland, D, they are the first congressional delegation in New Mexico’s history —  and only the second state after Hawai’i — to be entirely composed of women of color.

Across Arizona and Washington, Native candidates, including 13 women, prevailed in 16 races for state offices. Multiple firsts came at the state level: In Arizona, Democrat Gabriella Cázares-Kelly (Tohono O’odham) won her bid for Pima County recorder by a wide margin, the first Indigenous woman to hold that position there. “This isn’t just my win,” Cázares-Kelly said on Facebook Live. “This is a win for the Tohono O’odham people, for the Pascua Yaqui people, for any of you who are tribally affiliated. To people of color: This is a win for all of us.” As county recorder, Cázares-Kelly will oversee voter registration, early voting and voting by mail — a critical job in a state like Arizona with a history of voter suppression. She campaigned on expanding early voting sites and community outreach and supports same-day voter registration and restoring the right to vote to people with felony convictions.

Tribal elections also saw the triumph of Native women: The Northern Cheyenne Nation elected all women to its five-person council and chose women for tribal president and vice president.         

—Anna V. Smith

ARIZONA FLIPS BLUE
In one of the most surprising victories for Democrats, Arizona flipped blue, at least at the federal level. Residents chose Biden by a slim margin, voting for a Democratic president for the first time since 1996. Democrats also picked up a U.S. Senate seat, with Mark Kelly replacing Martha McSally, R. Kelly will join Kyrsten Sinema, D, in Washington; the last time the state had two Democratic U.S. senators was in 1952. While the political shift might seem sudden, Latino organizers have been working toward this for years, driven by decades of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s toxic anti-immigrant actions and the 2010 passage of SB 1070, the controversial “show me your papers” law. Since then, they’ve elected progressive officials at the local level and run successful get-out-the-vote efforts. Indigenous voters also made up a key margin of Biden’s support.          

—Jessica Kutz

DEMS PICK UP A SENATE SEAT IN COLORADO
Democrats saw another win in the West, flipping a second Senate seat in Colorado, where former Gov. John Hickenlooper defeated Sen. Cory Gardener, R. (The other was Arizona.) During Gardner’s six years in office, he supported President Trump on key issues that affect the West, including Trump’s fossil-fueled energy policy and the controversial relocation of Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado; the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group, gave him a 11% lifetime score for his environmental record. Green groups like the Sierra Club endorsed Hickenlooper, though he isn’t a total win for progressives; he has supported fracking in the state and said he would not advocate for the Green New Deal. He does, however, support taking action on the climate and tightening up environmental regulations rolled back under President Trump.             

 Jessica Kutz

GUN REGULATIONS
Montana narrowly approved a referendum to put the state, rather than local governments, in charge of gun regulations, and revoked local authorities’ ability to stop convicted felons, minors and others from possessing guns — largely in response to a 2016 Missoula city ordinance requiring background checks for all firearms sales and restrictions on where people can conceal carry. Attorney General Tim Fox claimed the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional; Missoula appealed the decision, and in 2019, the Montana Supreme Court ruled the ordinance was not enforceable. Outside Missoula, 17 other municipalities have local ordinances prohibiting firearms, including concealed carry, in public buildings, parks and cemeteries.

—Victoria Petersen

CALIFORNIA'S GIG ECONOMY
Life in California is defined by cars, and so are controversial labor laws. California-based ride-share and food-delivery companies Uber, Lyft and DoorDash waged an aggressive $200 million campaign for Proposition 22, a nearly impossible-to-overturn exemption from labor laws that will keep such workers as independent contractors — without union protection, insurance or overtime — rather than employees. In a decisive blow to labor advocates, it passed with 58% of the votes, enshrining the gig economy and laying groundwork for similar measures elsewhere.

Prop. 22 arose in response to a bill passed in 2018, which required companies to give contractors employee status. Ads for 22 claimed that it would help drivers — largely people of color and immigrants — “maintain their independence.” But loopholes may allow companies to pay far below minimum hourly wage, and families of workers who die from COVID-19, contracted on the job, could have a harder time receiving compensation.

Elena Saavedra Buckley

FAR-RIGHT POLITICIANS
The 2020 election was a mixed bag for far-right Western politicians, but one pattern emerged: Women had far more success than their male counterparts. In the region’s highest-profile federal election for far-right candidates, Lauren Boebert claimed western Colorado’s sprawling 3rd District. Boebert, a staunch pro-life, pro-gun restaurant owner turned politician, has battled COVID-19 restrictions and rallied with anti-government extremists.

In North Idaho and western Montana, two politicians with ties to far-right militia movements and the Bundy family’s so-called Patriot Movement prevailed. Heather Scott, a supporter of the American Redoubt — the movement for a conservative Christian haven in the Inland Northwest — and an ally of eastern Washington’s controversial former state Rep. Matt Shea, handily won re-election to the Idaho state Legislature. In Montana, Jennifer Fielder, who has ties to militias in Montana, won a seat on the Montana Public Services Commission, which regulates power utilities.

Elsewhere, far-right fellas were trounced. In central Idaho, Eric Parker, who notoriously drew his sniper-rifle on federal agents during the 2014 Bunkerville standoff, was defeated in his bid for a state Senate seat. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a far-right politician who had a worse week than Washington gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. Not only was Culp thoroughly defeated by incumbent Jay Inslee, D, he also lost his day job as police chief of Republic, Washington, when the city council voted to defund his one-man police department a few days earlier.

Carl Segerstrom

JUSTICE

CRIMINAL REFORM
After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police, California saw a number of criminal justice-related ballot measures. Residents voted down a proposition backed by police unions that would have classified certain low-level crimes, including shoplifting, as felonies and made it harder for incarcerated people to obtain parole. Voters also approved Proposition 17, which makes parolees eligible to vote. (Since 1974, people with felonies have been able to vote, but not if they were still serving a sentence.) In Los Angeles County, residents voted to amend the county charter to invest 10% of the county’s unrestricted general funds, anywhere between $300 and $500 million, in affordable housing, mental health services and restorative justice programs for low-income and communities of color. The measure, which was supported by Reimagine L.A. County, a coalition of community organizations and racial justice advocates, arose in response to the country’s reckoning over racism. “Without a doubt, Measure J wouldn’t even exist, and it wouldn’t be possible right now, if we had not seen and experienced all the things that happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the millions of folks marching,” Eunisses Hernandez, co-chair of the Yes On J campaign, told the LAist.

Not all social justice measures prospered, however: California residents retained an affirmative action ban and voted down a measure that would have expanded the number of rent-controlled apartments.

—Jessica Kutz

DRUG REFORM
The West continues to be a proving ground for drug reform. This year, Oregon became the first state in the country to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs like cocaine and heroin, oxycodone and methamphetamine. Instead of jail time, offenders will face a $100 fee, or, in lieu of that, a health assessment. The law created a fund carved from marijuana tax revenue to treat addiction and establish new recovery centers. Oregon also became the first state to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for use in licensed settings. In general, psilocybin has become less restricted across the West, thanks to local efforts to decriminalize psychedelics in places like Denver and Oakland.

Arizona and Montana voted to legalize recreational marijuana, joining six other Western states where it’s already legal. In Montana, half of the new tax revenue from drug sales will go to environmental conservation programs. In Arizona, where marijuana possession was a felony, residents will now have the chance to expunge their records for certain possession offenses. The state will also create 26 social equity licenses to open retail marijuana facilities for marijuana, to be given to people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by drug enforcement. Still, some progressive activists, including LUCHA, in Phoenix, say the changes did not go far enough to remedy how communities of color were impacted by drug laws, and they oppose tax revenues going to law enforcement. 

—Jessica Kutz

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