Election 2016 a Record-Setting Year for Ballot Initiatives

Election Day 2016 was historic, but that history isn't limited to the new President-Elect, Donald J. Trump. This year the United States set records for the number and scope of ballot initiatives and referenda.

Communities across the country saw the largest number of state and local bond measures on ballots. At the same time, U.S. voters weighed in on the greatest number of measures focused on public transportation.

Just ask voters in California, where there were 17 statewide measures on ballots. If you happened to live in San Francisco, you got the chance to consider 25 more initiatives.

The scope of issues addressed in ballot measures was wide-ranging. However, issues of direct relevance to planning were considered in communities from coast-to-coast. Ballot propositions addressed affordable housing, transportation, parks, energy, land use, and planning process.

Here is a look at where voters came down on this large — and growing — landscape of planning and development-related ballot measures.

Parks and Land Conservation

According to the Trust for Public Land's LandVote project, there were 85 state and local ballot measures considered this year totaling $8.2 billion in new funding for parks, recreation and land conservation. At the state level, Missouri passed a 10-year sales tax renewal dedicated for state parks and conservation. In Alabama, a whopping 80 percent of voters opted to support Amendment 2, a measure that ensures state park revenues are used exclusively for park purposes.

Cities continued to account for the majority of conservation measures in 2016. Among the most prominent were ballot initiatives in Los Angeles and Boston. In Los Angeles, voters approved Measure A, the "Safe, Clean Neighborhood Park Measure," with 73 percent in support. Measure A renews a property tax expected to generate $94 million annually for local parks and open space.

Given a second chance in 2016, Boston voters gave approval to a Community Preservation Act (CPA) measure. Passage means a 1 percent real estate surcharge will be levied and used for a range of activities eligible under the state's CPA, including parks, open space, and affordable housing. Under CPA, the city will now be eligible for matching funds from a state fund. Boston joined 10 other cities in the commonwealth approving CPA measures in 2016.

Affordable Housing

A look at 2016 ballot measures demonstrates the acute nature of housing issues in much of the country. Measures focused on affordable housing and homelessness were prominent in many communities, particularly those facing pressure from rapidly rising real estate values and changing neighborhoods.

California was ground zero for housing-related ballot measures. There were dozens of measures across the state. Six Bay Area cities adopted rent control or eviction protection measures. In Oakland, 82 percent of voters approved Measure KK to provide $600 million in bond funding for a combination of infrastructure and housing. Alameda County voters approved a $580 million bond to support affordable housing and displacement prevention programs. Voters in Santa Clara County just cleared the state's supermajority requirement to enact Measure A. The initiative levies a new property tax to provide $950 million for 5,000 affordable housing units.

In Los Angeles, Measure HHH was adopted. This property tax initiative will generate $1.2 billion to fight homelessness with a focus on permanent supportive housing. LA voters also supported the more controversial Measure JJJ. This measure requires developers seeking a general plan amendment or zoning change to meet standards for prevailing area wages and local hiring. In addition, they must reserve up to 25 percent of housing units as affordable. Some groups argued that the measure might have the unintended consequence of limiting housing production and adding to the housing crisis in Los Angeles.

The fight over Measure JJJ might be foreshadowing of the upcoming vote in March on the measure dubbed the "Neighborhood Integrity Initiative." This ballot measure would block certain development projects that require changes in city plans and development rules. It is portrayed by supporters as a tool to fight gentrification. The measure is opposed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti along with much of the business community who fear it will harm the city's effort to combat homelessness and chill new housing starts.

In San Francisco, housing issues were the subject of no fewer than seven different ballot measures. The most significant effort was aimed at dedicated a new sales tax for a combination of housing and transportation projects. The sales tax measure was defeated. However, voters did support creating a new affordable housing loan fund and an increase in the property transfer tax.

San Francisco was one of two communities asking voters to consider the often-thorny issue of income eligibility for certain housing programs. Some housing advocates in particularly expensive markets have been pushing for raising income limits to help more middle income and working class family who don't meet current standard but nevertheless face a major housing squeeze. In San Francisco, the ballot measure changing income eligibility was rejected, but voters in Honolulu, Hawaii raised eligibility for their program from 50 to 60 percent of area median income.

California was far from the only place where housing issues were sent to voters. In Portland, Oregon, a property tax increase was approved to fund a $258 million bond aimed at publically developing new affordable units. Baltimore established a new affordable housing trust fund. Voters in three North Carolina communities — Greensboro, Asheville, and Orange County — passed affordable housing bond measures.


It was a banner year for transportation investment via the ballot box. Billions of dollars in new funding were approved all across the country. Public transportation had a particularly big Election Day. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, 2016 was a record for the number of state and local ballot measures supporting public transportation.

Building on this local momentum, infrastructure was prominently mentioned in President-Elect Donald J. Trump's victory speech, suggesting that the issue will likely top the post-election agenda in Washington too.

2016 saw 77 different transit measures go to voters across 23 states. Ultimately, more than 70 percent of these initiatives were approved by voters, accounting for nearly $170 billion in new transit investment.

Among the headline winners were Los Angeles where a supermajority of voters approved Measure M and secured an estimated $120 billion (about $100 billion for transit) for a range of transportation projects. The funding will continue and expedite the region's transit renaissance.

The Seattle region approved Sound Transit 3 to provide $54 billion over 25 years to massively grow the transit network. New funding was approved for public transportation in cities ranging from Atlanta to Indianapolis and Raleigh to Spokane. The trend of both more measures and strong voter support documented by CFTE shows no likelihood of abating any time soon.

A few states had initiatives aimed at transportation spending. These measures sought to prevent legislators from using gas tax revenues for non-transportation programs. New Jersey and Illinois voters adopted so-called "lockbox" measures to keep transportation revenues reinvested in the transportation system.


Measure aimed at decriminalization of marijuana may not seem related to planning on first inspection. However, the experience in states like Washington and Colorado where similar measure were previously approved show that land use and tax questions quickly arise in the wake of legalization.

Five states had recreational use measures go to voters. Initiatives were approved in California, Massachusetts and Nevada while Arizona and Maine rejected legalization measures. Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota joined the ranks of states allowing medical use. Adoption of marijuana in some of the most populous areas of the country and the steady growth in such measures, suggests that the long-term trend is toward legalization with planners likely to be faced with a new slate of regulatory and land use challenges.


One of the nation's most watched state measures was the Washington state carbon tax initiative. Initiative 732 would have been the first to impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels. The measure gained only 42 percent support and ended up being opposed by a number of environmental groups. Initiative 732 was modeled on a similar levy in neighboring British Columbia.

The controversy in Washington was less about the use of a new tax to combat climate change and more about the measure's provisions making it "revenue neutral." Many groups who might otherwise have supported the measure wanted to see funds from the tax used for a variety of purposes. The fault lines in Washington might be part of future debates on Capitol Hill and across the states on climate and carbon taxes.

Florida was the site of another controversial state ballot measure. Sunshine State voters rejected Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment aimed at solar energy. The initiative, which was supported by energy utility companies, appeared to support the right to residential solar use but opponent noted that it also would have allowed utilities to charge new fees to solar users.

In Colorado, voters approved a measure that makes it a little more difficult for voter referenda that amend the state constitution to qualify for the ballot. This measure was not ostensibly about energy issues. In fact, many good government organizations supported it based on a wariness of the growth in ballot box amendments. But, the energy industry helped lead and funded the effort partly in response to the rise of efforts to fight energy extraction via ballot restrictions.

Planning Process

Some ballot measures in 2016 focused squarely on planning itself. These measures sought to address whether and how planning rules would be applied. While much less common than initiatives on funding for planning and development issues, these ballot box planning efforts are often used to undermine plans and target specific developments. For example in echoes of Florida's defeated efforts at "hometown democracy" amendments, voters in Traverse City, Michigan approved a measure that would require the public to vote directly on any building taller than 60 feet. That measure appears headed for the courts.

In San Francisco, voters approved Proposition X. The measure development projects in the Mission or South of Market to get a conditional use authorization if the project would demolish or convert space used by production, distribution, repair, arts activities or nonprofit groups and requires the new development to replace the demolished or converted space. Planning groups in the area opposed the measure noting that going through the regular planning and legislative process is a better way to achieve the objectives of Proposition X supporters.

Previously, San Francisco has seen ballot efforts to limit develop in certain high growth areas. As noted above, Los Angeles will face the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative in early 2017. The trend of targeting planning at the ballot box is one that bears close attention and scrutiny as communities struggle with the challenges of neighborhood change.

Election 2016 is unlikely to be remembered for its ballot measures. But, for planners and citizens focused on local development and local visions for the future the outcome of ballot measures will have an immediate and important impact. While we ponder the implications of changes in Washington, it's clear that voters sent equally powerful messages on the issues planners address everyday.

Top image: Los Angeles transit at the La Cienega/Jefferson station. On Election Day 2016, LA voters approved Measure M and secured an estimated $120 billion (about $100 billion for transit) for a range of transportation projects. Photo by Flickr user Steve and Julie (CC BY 2.0).

About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.

November 10, 2016

By Jason Jordan