Hot-Button Social Issues Cram State Ballots
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage may generate the most headlines, but other key statewide votes on Nov. 2 could change the way Colorado casts its electoral votes for president, ban Maine hunters from baiting bears and legalize marijuana in Alaska.
Voters in more than 30 states will get to decide important social and legal issues that have divided and bedeviled statehouses all year.
About 160 proposals are on statewide ballots this year, not as many as the nearly 200 in the 2002 elections primarily because of fewer tax and bond initiatives, said John G. Matsusaka, a professor at the Marshall School of Business & School of Law and president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. "Most states have emerged from the fiscal crises of two years ago, and their legislatures are no longer turning to the voters for new taxes or bonds," Matsusaka said.
Ballot measures can boost voter turnout by as much as 3 percent in presidential election years, said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a labor-backed group based in Washington, D.C.
But Wilfore downplayed the often-touted value of ballot initiatives as "wedge issues" that can rope in voters who help this or that candidate. For example, while proposals to ban same-sex marriage are expected to bring more conservatives to the polls, measures to boost the minimum wage could bring more liberals to vote, she said.
California voters will face the bulkiest ballot, with 16 initiatives. Included are measures that would: launch the country's largest government-funded research program on embryonic stem cells, scale back the state's "three-strikes" sentencing law to violent or serious felonies, slap a tax on millionaires to fund health care for mentally ill children, and toss out a law that requires businesses with at least 50 employees to provide health insurance.
National attention is being focused on Colorado's proposal to become the first state in the country to drop the "winner-take-all" system of awarding electoral votes for the presidency. Voters are being asked to change to a proportional method that would split the state's nine electoral votes based on the popular vote. If it passes, the measure would go into effect immediately, possibly affecting whether John Kerry or George W. Bush becomes president.
In Arizona, voters will consider a proposal aimed at preventing undocumented immigrants from voting or getting public services. Proponents say the measure, which would require proof of citizenship before voting or accessing state welfare benefits, is needed because people in Arizona currently can declare themselves citizens without showing any documentation. Only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote in national and state elections. Opponents call the proposal mean-spirited and anti-immigrant and say it would turn government employees into immigration agents. California voters approved a similar ballot measure in 1994, but a court struck it down.
Here's a sampling of other major questions on state ballots:
- Education: A measure in South Dakota would allow the state to pay for busing students to private schools, while a proposal in Washington would allow the creation of a limited number of charter schools.
- Gay marriage: Voters in 11 states will decide whether to change their state constitutions to ban same-sex marriages: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio (pending verification of petitions), Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah.
- Gambling: California, Florida, Nebraska and Washington voters will consider measures to expand gambling, while Oklahoma voters decide whether they want to launch a lottery. Michigan voters will decide whether to require a statewide vote before allowing any new non-Indian gambling sites.
- Hunting: Alaska and Maine have proposals making it a crime to hunt bears with bait. Measures in Louisiana and Montana would guarantee the right to hunt and fish.
- Marijuana: Oregon and Montana have proposals to allow marijuana for medical use, and Alaska would regulate marijuana like alcohol.
- Medical malpractice: Four states Florida, Oregon, Nevada and Wyoming will vote on whether to limit the amount of money patients can collect in medical malpractice lawsuits.
- Minimum wage: Florida and Nevada voters will consider boosting their state minimum wage to $6.15 per hour $1 higher than the federal rate although Nevada employers would pay $5.15 if they provide health insurance.
- Politics: An Arkansas proposal would extend term limits on state House members to six two-year terms, up from three, and on senators to three four-year terms, up from two.
- Social issues: Florida will decide whether minors have to notify parents before getting abortions.
- Tobacco taxes: Colorado and Montana will vote on whether to hike tobacco taxes and use the money to expand health care.
- Taxes: Voters in Maine, Indiana and Washington will consider proposals aimed at reducing local property taxes. A proposal in Washington would hike the retail sales tax to provide more money for education, while a South Dakota measure would exempt food from sales and use taxes.