Last week was rough for progressives, to put it mildly. Some reactionary, frightening candidates were able to win competitive races and take over the Senate. Key governorships were lost. Of course, this is all cyclical to a degree, as Jon Stewart pointed out by pulling up some 2-year-old footage about the “bloodbath” endured by Republicans. There are many conversations to be had about what our side could have done better in various races. In the meantime, people will face real consequences, whether they’re young immigrants who are waiting for their chance to become citizens or low-income people who desperately need the Medicaid expansion that Republican governors refuse to implement. It can be incredibly disheartening to people who poured time and money into this year’s elections, and made their voices heard at the ballot box. Some people want to throw their hands up at a process that seems to have been coopted by the Koch brothers and their friends. Amidst the deluge of bad news, we can’t lose sight of the real, meaningful impact we still managed to have this election.
Imagine you’re a kid sitting in a juvenile detention facility, locked away for a nonviolent crime because our society hasn’t developed a better way for dealing with you. On Tuesday, Californians vote to reclassify six non-violent crimes as misdemeanors and redirect the money saved to schools and treatment programs. By Friday, you’re free and breathing fresh air. That’s right, just three days after we checked that box on our ballots, at least six children were released from juvenile detention in San Diego. It might not sound like much, but it makes a world of difference if you’re one of those six kids.
And that’s just the beginning. As Think Progress reports, public defenders are getting 200 calls per hour from prisoners whose sentences could be shortened, part of 10,000 currently incarcerated people who could be eligible for sentence reductions under the new law. About 40,000 fewer people will be convicted of felonies each year because of this ballot initiative, a distinction that has a huge impact on people’s career prospects and voting rights. Even when good laws are passed, it often takes ages for people to feel the effects. Here, they are immediate, and they’re only going to grow. That wouldn’t have happened if people hadn’t turned out to vote for smarter, saner policy.
Workers in Oakland will feel the difference from this year’s election in their wallets in a matter of a few months. Thanks to voters here, the minimum wage will jump from $9 per hour to $12.25 in March of 2015. As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, an extra $500 per month for a full-time worker makes a major difference. While others will have to wait longer for increases, 4 Republican states voted to increase the minimum wage in addition to progressive cities like Oakland and San Francisco.
These victories represent the power of the grassroots to take bold stands that recalcitrant politicians have shied away from. It’s been sad and mind-blowing that we still can’t pass any significant gun control legislation after tragedies like Sandy Hook. In the state of Washington, voters took the matter into their own hands, passing a law mandating background checks for gun purchases. All of these victories will have direct impacts and hopefully inspire similar measures around the country.
It’s understandable to be frustrated and saddened by the election results last week. We need to allow ourselves to express our outrage, and process after all the energy and emotion we’ve invested. But we can’t wallow. Many things will be bad under right-wing control, but they will only be worse if we opt out. We have a lot of work to do to hold our opponents accountable, pressure our allies to be bold and learn from their mistakes, and circumvent the politicians when our best opportunity is to take on the issues directly with our votes.