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Data Dive: Legalization No Longer a Partisan Issue, Election Data Show

November 15, 2016
The returns from last week’s election didn’t just represent a triumph for cannabis legalization advocates. Data from the Nov. 8 vote also revealed a political paradigm shift. This is the year that the issue of legalization broke free from traditional conservative–liberal boundaries.

Over the course of about ten hours on election night, a surprising trend caught the attention of editors here at Leafly: Voters in extremely conservative counties were approving cannabis legalization measures—in some cases by wide margins.

It didn’t happen everywhere. But in a large number of deeply red districts the vote wasn’t even close. They were going for legalization to the tune of 55 percent, 60 percent, 65 percent.

Exhibit A: Union County, Florida. Smallest county in the state. Landlocked, off the beaten path between Jacksonville and Gainesville. Population: 15,535. Union County’s largest employer is a state prison. Donald Trump captured 80 percent of the vote there. Hillary Clinton, 18 percent. And do you know how they voted on Amendment 2, Florida’s statewide measure to legalize medical cannabis? 65 percent yes.


Election 2016 Cannabis Legalization Coverage and Results

A similar story played out in the conservative Florabama counties in the state’s northern panhandle:

  • Okaloosa County is one of the most conservative counties in Florida. It swung 70 percent for Trump, 72 percent for medical cannabis. Amendment 2 came within 40 ballots of equaling Trump’s Okaloosa County vote total of 71,788.
  • Suwannee County displays its Bible Belt heritage on the county elections supervisor’s website, which is wrapped in an “In GOD We Trust” banner. Until five years ago, Suwannee County was defiantly dry, forbidding the sale of alcohol. Trump: 76 percent. Medical cannabis legalization: 62 percent.

Did the same thing happen in other states? It did.

Here at the Leafly elections desk, no state popped our eyes wider than North Dakota. Going into Election Day we had zero polling data on North Dakota’s Measure 5, medical cannabis legalization. That did not bode well. North Dakota = farmers, football players, oil frackers, and Fargo. And apparently zero political pollsters. My colleagues and I figured it might pull 39 percent to 42 percent of the vote. And that would have been OK. It’s not unusual for marijuana legalization measures to endure one or two failed tries before finally passing.

Forget about it. Measure 5 crushed it, 64 percent to 36 percent.

We started throwing darts at the North Dakota map. Five counties at random. Here’s what we found:

  • McHenry County: Trump 73 percent, medical cannabis 58 percent.
  • Dunn County: Trump 79 percent, medical cannabis 54 percent.
  • Barnes County: Trump 59 percent, medical cannabis 59 percent.
  • Stutsman County: Trump 68 percent, medical cannabis 64 percent.
  • Eddy County: Trump 65 percent, medical cannabis 60 percent

America’s 2016 Cannabis Laws and Legalization State Map

That’s medical. What about adult use?

Adult-use measures are tougher to pass. When you vote for medical legalization, you’re showing mercy to epileptic kids. When you vote to legalize and regulate adult use, you’re overturning the war on drugs and eight decades of government-funded anti-cannabis doctrine.

Five states considered adult-use measures earlier this week: California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maine. All but Arizona passed.

The approval numbers weren’t as high as for medical marijuana, but the same pattern held.

Consider Maine. Up in the north woods, Mainers legalized the regulated sale and use of cannabis by an extremely tight margin. The Associated Press had to wait two days before finally calling the vote for legalization, 50.2 percent yes to 49.8 percent no. (Opponents of Question 1, the adult-use legalization measure, are now petitioning for a recount.)

The stronger a Massachusetts county pulled for Hillary, the weaker its support for adult-use legalization.

Franklin County, Maine, is the second least-populated county in the state. The Stanley twins, inventors of the Stanley Steamer automobile, were born here in the 1800s. Since then it’s been nothing but syrup and crickets. Trump captured 48 percent of the 16,382 vote cast in Franklin County. Clinton got 43 percent. Question 1 actually lost here—but just barely. No votes outnumbered yes votes in Franklin County, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent.

Trump did better in Oxford County, directly south of Franklin. There he captured 52 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 39 percent. Question 1 carried 50.8 percent of the vote. In other words, Oxford swung more conservative than Franklin county and yet adult-use legalization performed better there.

Things were even more interesting in Massachusetts.

In presidential elections, Massachusetts votes as blue as the King’s suede shoes. But when you dive into last Tuesday’s data, here’s what you find: The stronger a Massachusetts county pulled for Hillary, the weaker its support for adult-use legalization.

Look at Suffolk County, which encompasses Boston. Voters there went wild for Clinton, casting 79.5 percent of their ballots for the Democratic nominee. But just 62 percent voted for legalization—a difference of 17.5 percent.

  • Berkshire County, where Massachusetts corners into Vermont and New York, also went big for Clinton (67.5 percent) but not so big for legalization (58 percent).
  • Norfolk County, same thing: 61.2 percent for Clinton, 51 percent for legalization.

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but in general the Massachusetts counties that gave Clinton her biggest majorities showed the widest disparity between Democratic Party votes and legalization votes.

  • In Worcester County, Clinton squeaked by with 51.7 percent of the vote. Legalization actually outpolled her there, at 53 percent.
  • Plymouth County: 50.7 percent for Clinton, 50.3 percent for legalization. 

Welcome to a New America

Weren’t the numbers similar in 2012?

Not at all. In 2012, the legalization votes in Colorado and Washington state lined up mainly along partisan lines. Most Obama supporters voted for legalization. Most Romney voters opposed it. There were a few outlier counties that hinted at the possibility of a crossover, but nothing like what we saw this year.

In Washington, counties that voted heavily for Republican nominee Mitt Romney generally opposed Initiative 502, the adult-use measure, and vice versa. Like this:

  • Garfield County, which pulled 71 percent for Romney, also opposed legalization by 62 percent.
  • Benton County went 62 percent for Romney 56 percent opposed legalization.
  • 69 percent of King County, which encompasses liberal Seattle, swung for Obama, while 63 percent voted for legalization.
Between 2012 and 2016, many conservative voters changed their minds and became legalization supporters.

In those numbers you can catch a glimpse of things to come. Not all Romney supporters voted against legalization, and not all Obama supporters voted for it. There were a couple counties that voted for Romney and legalization, but just barely. (They were Okanogan and Chelan counties, interestingly, which now host some of the state’s most successful outdoor cannabis growers.)

In Colorado a similar pattern held. Counties that voted for Mitt Romney also voted (although in slightly less strength) against Amendment 64, adult-use legalization:

  • Baca County: 74 percent for Romney, 64 percent against legalization.
  • Cheyenne County: 82 percent for Romney, 54 percent against legalization.
  • In liberal Boulder County, by contrast, Obama pulled 70 percent of the vote and legalization tallied 63 percent.

So not every Obama voter supported legalization, not every Romney voter opposed it.

What’s going on here?

A couple things. First, don’t kid yourself. In general, liberal voters tend to support Democrats and cannabis legalization. But not all traditional liberals support legalization, and not all conservatives oppose it. In fact, the data indicate that between 2012 and 2016 many more conservative voters changed their minds and became legalization supporters.

One of the best voter surveys taken during the run-up to the November election, the Survey USA poll of California voters, offered some insight. (Leafly news editor Ben Adlin used the survey last month for an in-depth look at how various California voters were reacting to Prop. 64.)

In that survey, Democrats were more likely to support legalization than Republicans. But the numbers get interesting when you look at the degree of party affiliation.

When asked about their support for Prop. 64, “Strong Republicans” (44 percent) and “Independent Leaning Republicans” (40 percent) were far more likely to support legalization than voters who identified simply as “Republican” (28 percent).

Similarly, “Strong Democrats” (70 percent) and “Independent Leaning Democrats” (75 percent) were more likely to support legalization than plain-vanilla “Democrats” (57 percent).

Why the softness in the middle? It may have something to do with trust and change. Moderate party members tend to have centrist proclivities, which may grow out of a basic trust in the institutions of government. Many of those institutions—the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the White House Office on Drug Control Policy, state and local law enforcement agencies—are among the last holdouts fighting to keep cannabis illegal.


Data Dive: Prop. 64 Poll Reveals Bikers Love Legalization (and Other Curious Trends)

The outlying wings of both parties tend to be more skeptical of the official line and more open to change. Some right-wing Republicans are embracing legalization because it represents an unwarranted intrusion of government in their lives. Voters who identify as “independent-leaning” Republicans or Democrats tend to not swallow the party line, but like to figure out each issue on its own merits. And if those folks are looking at cannabis, they’re likely to find science, experience, and common sense bending their vote toward legalization.

Any other factors?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Colorado–Washington experience. Both states have been legal now for four years, and none of the great fears of the prohibitionists have come to pass. In fact, both states are booming economically and have become magnets to a generation of migrating millennials seeking freedom, tolerance, and opportunity.

The most telling vote, in fact, may have been the one that almost everyone outside of Colorado ignored. On Tuesday, anti-cannabis prohibitionists tried to pass two identical measures in Pueblo, Colo.—one in the city of Pueblo, another in the surrounding Pueblo County—that would have banned cannabis farming and retail sales. Measure 300 gave Pueblo voters a chance to effectively re-do the election of 2012. Given their experience with adult use legalization, would they change their vote if they could go back in time to Nov. 2012?

Some voters did. But not in the way that Measure 300 supporters expected.

In 2012, 55 percent of Pueblo County voters (city and county) cast their ballots in favor of legalization. Four years later, 59 percent of those same voters decided to keep legalization. In other words, thousands of Pueblo citizens who voted against legalization in 2012 experienced regulated cannabis firsthand, liked what they saw, and changed their minds. Last Tuesday they voted to keep it.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • Cierra Carpenter

    Here’s the thing. We have been lied to for 8 decades because of the classification and marijuana has been forced down our throats as the devil drug, since this is no longer the issue, what’s the issue with legalizing it nationwide like they did with gay marriage? I mean, you’ve got conservatives in states who say that gay marriage is wrong but they still have to uphold the wishes of the people and that’s a much more sensitive topic. If our own capital can legalize it, that sets a pretty poor example for the rest of the country when you stare directly into the face of something that’s “federally illegal” when it shouldn’t have even been to begin with. It just goes to show how corrupt our government is, what they will do in the name of money, and how easily they can lie to us for so long. Not to mention, we now have a known source of relief for the children in America who are suffering from chronic pain and terminal illness, to keep that from them and their families is pretty reckless and unconstitutional if you ask me. It needs to be legalized, medically, everywhere, immediately. God gave this crop to us to use, it’s time for us to take it back.

    • Big Killa

      Gay marriage shouldn’t have been forced down people’s throats. It was already on its way to be legal thru the natural way. Marriage is not in US Constitution therefore it should be left up to the State. Although I believe like many true Conservatives that government shouldn’t be involved w/ marriage. It wasn’t until to stop minorities, racist Democrats made it where you had to get a license to marry.
      It was actually illegal for you NOT to grow Marijuana is you were a farmer at the beginning of our country, it was used for clothing & rope.

      • LaFaye Lincoln

        but thats the whole point nothing is supposed to be the way it used to be..thats the whole purpose of finding better ways to improve the way that a country is ran. and as far as gay marriages go..i dont really care about gay marriages but I do dislike the fact that when it comes to topics like gay marriage its like they flaunt there sexual preferences in public. ever heard of too much public show of affection? well to me there flaunt is to public! marriage is supposed to be a personal relationship with another partner. and should never be flaunted. so taking that into consideration THEY FLAUNT! I dont care if they get married but dont flaunt. it makes them look stupid to the sanctity of marriage. I could see flaunting your marriage on your wedding day. BUT THAT’S IT.! NOTHING MORE.

    • LaFaye Lincoln

      if it was truly about the money with the Government then they would be all for it being legalized. colorado sales alone prove that, not including washington, alaska , and DC. so your theory there is really moot..its a matter of how much control the Government has over state, church and people….even non violent protests are being treated like violent protests and people are being shot with rubber bullets over the north dakota pipeline even. so sooner or later they’ll declare Marshall Law and we all will be hauled into camps. just for our rights, beliefs, and Freedom. No matter what.!!!!

  • Mike_Scarborough

    I wonder if there is some kind of libertarian effect at work here. Libertarians and republicans cross vote all the time, and sometimes I can’t tell the difference between the two because of their mutual conservative obsession with limited government. Pure libertarians will not only support legalizing cannabis, but all recreational drugs in general (emphasis on the word ‘pure’). Social conservatism prevents most republicans from going that far, but maybe there is some kind cross-pollenization (pun not originally intended) going on between the two parties.

    • Moi_encore

      Cannabis is, never was & never will be a ‘recreational’ vice…. It is a free PRIMAL preventative herbal medicine. A seed, planted, TLC, harvested & utilized raw or as a self-made derivative. Not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination, really.

      But neither is comparing corporate-irradiated cardboard produce versus one’s backyard variety plush, rich-coloured & nutrition-packed natural bounty ever..

      Consider the fact that the entire North American ( and resulting global population) were ALL rail-road-ed by a propaganda assault a Crime of the Century ago…. initiated by the AMA, of all ironic places.. not so ironic when weighing-in the fact that Cannabis stood as their public enemy #1 ~ toward their profits & monopoly over our health choices way back when & ever since.. Maniacal is a term applied, being kind as best as possible to describe such dark intent. Enough is enough already, let alone since 1923..

      As for ‘recreational’ drugs, alcohol & tobacco are pretty well the two front-runners alone, and are indeed VICES…. whereas Cannabis can not even be registered amoung such in any facet, let alone the ways it has so irresponsibly & negligently been RAMMED down the public’s throats & minds all along now to this day ~ & the INSISTENCE to continue lying flat-out to all people STILL as we few stand steadfast & unflinching right at ground ZERO of Cannabis’ outright return to ALL by sunrise the next morning – as long as it took to YANK this free plant from the global population’s fingers a sad century ago.

      • Mike_Scarborough

        I think the word ‘vice’ is extremely subjective and a tool of the public morality enforcers that have a way of creeping into our government and staying there. As far as the word ‘recreational’ goes, a good sativa dominant Blue Dream mixed into the same bowl with some Northern Lights pretty much satisfies my definition of ‘recreation.’ I guess ‘recreation’ is a highly subjective word also. And yes, cannabis is also an amazing palliative medicine, and I don’t plan on getting older without it.

  • rwscid

    There is no serious rational argument for banning any drug.

    Fortunately, both Republicans and Democrats are capable of thinking rationally, at times.

    • LaFaye Lincoln

      well on some topics im still waiting this is why i’ll never be a republican or democrat!
      there only famous because the media makes them so the coverage is outrageous. being a politician and one of the people trying to there cares and concerns about this country, planet. on any topic known is tough i could imagine. but I’ve yet to see a politician actually show that much concern about anything but winning the fight to the top! Popularity and status quo for Office Head. and its about the power of that office..It just nauseates me.

  • Big Killa

    Many Conservatives believe in ‘States Rights’ & individual freedom, like me. Too bad Texas doesn’t have ballot initiatives.

  • Moi_encore

    Well, congrats for recognizing the NON-PARTISAN aspect of a FREE ALL-NATURAL DITCH WEED that Mother Nature had provided long before we miserable humans came along. This plant is not a ‘recreational/adult-use’ VICE…. by any stretch of the imagination, no surrie.. This is a PRIMAL daily dietary preventative herbal supplement necessary for our survival within a healthy process versus being constantly HELD in a sickly state of disease, suffering & death.

    Cannabis prohibition has been an absolute flat-out INTENTIONAL ASSAULT on both our Canadian Charter as well the American Constitutional protections that generations before us fought so hard to not only create, but PRESERVE for following generations ~ UNTIL ~ some few chose otherwise when it came to this SIMPLE FREE CRUX of a ONE-STOP-SOLUTION to personal health, environmental, industrial, consumer & manufacturing habits & responsibilities. This is by ALL MEASURE NOTHING SHORT OF INTENTIONAL GENOCIDE with a treasonous twist.

    The CRIME of the CENTURY indeed.. and as far as the NON-PARTISAN aspect of this FREE DITCH WEED, be it clear & understood that CANNABIS MUST BE FOR ALL with unabashed, unhindered access allowing complete & whole SELF-RELIANCE in doing so flat-out, period, and THIS MUST NEVER BE TESTED AGAIN despite any changing of the guard in political arenas ever again.

    This is in no way restricted to the U.S. & Canada, as it is a LIVING ORGANISM-level necessity & certainly covers the GLOBAL POPULATION as a whole.

    Follow the $$$ Honey…. as the U.N. seems to have their association with this plant’s repeal near a century ago, and this is beyond disturbing, when weighing-in the RESPONSIBILITY & NEGLIGENCE FACTOR of Cannabis prohibition from it’s concept stage right-through to today’s illicit upkeep & incubation of nefariously existing & still-enforced laws which simply allow the continuation of this stealthy assault on ALL living creatures, let alone our environment & living choices.

    As well, PLEASE CONSIDER NEVER UTTERING, WRITING/TYPING the derogatory propaganda spreader “marijuana/marihuana’ as this has been one of the MOST SIGNIFICANT TOOLS of prohibition without anyone even recognizing that we have ALL been part of it’s success in utilizing this manufactured disgrace of a term that has had no other purpose than to DISGRACE A FREE PLANT by way of psychological manipulation on the world’s population – to sound ‘Mexican’, foreign, taboo, dirty, unknown, dangerous, harmful, etc…. Try sticking to the term ‘THEY’ would rather we not use specifically….. “CANNABIS”. ;^)

    As far as this plant’s FREE RE-INTEGRATION BACK INTO the very FABRIC (pun most certainly intended) of our societies exponentially, the NON-PARTISAN fact MUST BE HELD front & centre, as we here in Canada attack the CRUX of our system’s illegal grip of this free plant….. The CDSA (Controlled Drugs & Substances Act). This (and any global equivalent) is the stealthy, illicit SOURCE of systemic assault on all human’s FREE ACCESS to a FREE LIFE-PLANT. Onward we ALL grow indoors & outdoors as required & desired… 😉 And may no corporate-lobbied politician EVER stand in our way to a healthy life-style plant ever again.

  • Excuse me

    Great article. Is there not, between the lines of these statistics, a theme of wait-and-see by many of the new pro-legaliize voters? They have had the opportunity to watch the so-called “early adopters”, and contrary to the chicken little naysayers, they have seen no dramatic societal upheaval from legalization. Okay, Feds. It’s time to get on board so these enterprises are not in banking limbo.