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How Did Americans Vote on Tech Measures?

Yes to public transit; no to saving a Silicon Valley mall

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

While the presidential election attracted all the headlines Tuesday, local ballot measures around the country could have an even bigger impact on day-to-day lives. A lot of those measures are related to technology and the companies in that sector, and while we were spared any municipal standoffs from regulation-skirting companies like Uber and Airbnb this November, there were still a handful of key issues put to a vote that could have wider implications on the future of tech. Here’s a brief rundown.

Seattle Says Yes to Light Rail

Last week I traveled to Seattle to learn about the battle over a proposed $54 billion light rail expansion called Sound Transit 3 (ST3) that would connect more parts of the region but also increase taxes and take 25 years to complete. Opponents said the expansion was needlessly big — some even said that fixed light rail would be obsolete in the coming decades thanks to advances in driverless car tech. But Seattle residents decided to back tried-and-true public transit, with 55 percent of voters approving the expansion.

ST3 brought together a broad coalition of backers, including city officials, transportation advocates, and tech giants — Microsoft, based in nearby Redmond, was the campaign’s biggest donor. In my interviews with residents, I found that people who used the current light rail and bus systems in Seattle often had a lot of enthusiasm for the bill, while those who lived outside the city saw it as being needlessly expensive and complex. Pretty much everyone agreed that the 25-year time table is too long, but transit officials have said the current timeline is generous and certain transit lines could open earlier than their target dates.

As for driverless cars, tech companies will of course keep working to improve the technology — they may even see ST3 as a benefit to their future robo-taxi businesses. A couple of ST3 opponents I talked to thought the only reason Uber backed the plan was to curry good favor with the city so it can later earn official designation as a “last-mile” transit option that carries riders from their homes to the train station. The company has already worked out such deals in smaller markets.

Los Angeles Also Backs Transit

Though Seattle’s transit battle has been rife with drama, Los Angeles County actually passed a way bigger transportation bill on Election Day. Voters approved a bill promising $120 billion in transit improvements (and increased taxes), including an expansion of the region’s light rail system to the cities of Pacoima, Claremont, Westwood, Torrance, and Artesia. The measure earned 70 percent voter approval.

Cupertino Weighs a Plan to Curb Growth

Silicon Valley is choking on its own success — metaphorically, sure, but also as an actual physical space that wasn’t built to accommodate so many workers. The problem, which voters wrestled with in multiple California cities on Tuesday, is best expressed in the conundrum of what to do with a largely abandoned mall called Vallco in Cupertino, the hometown of Apple. Developers want to turn it into an office and residential space, attracting even more workers to the crowded region. But opponents were pushing a measure that would turn the mall into a retail and hotel space, while also ensuring voters get to approve any later high-density projects there. That measure was voted down by Cupertino residents, but so was the plan to make the mall into an office space. For now, the future of Vallco remains in limbo, but there’s no doubt developers will redouble their efforts to make use of such valuable real estate.

Floridians Are Nervous About Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes

Researchers want to test genetically engineered mosquitoes that could help stop the spread of the Zika virus, but Florida isn’t having it. The British company Oxitec wants to unleash its superbugs in the Florida Keys, but the region’s Mosquito Control District Board of Commissioners (yes, that’s a thing) wanted to get citizen input first. The verdict is mixed. The city of Key Haven voted against the ballot measure, but the residents of Monroe Country, where Key Haven resides, voted for it. Since the ballot wasn’t a legally binding referendum, the mosquito commissioners will get to decide whatever they want when they meet with Oxitec later this month. But at least the people’s opinion of vigilante mosquitoes that don’t play by the rules was heard.

Nevada on the Road to Ending Energy Monopolies

Nevada voters passed a measure that could lead to more options for buying electricity. The Energy Choice Initiative would end the monopoly held by NV Energy in the state so that more competitors could make use of the electrical grid. Startups like SolarCity benefit from markets where energy monopolies have been broken up. The measure will have to pass another vote in 2018.