Panoply of Ballot Measures Awaits Voters
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
(Updated 4:30 p.m. EST, Nov. 3, 2008)
When voters in Arizona, California and Colorado go to the polls on Tuesday (Nov. 4), they will be weighing in on a lot more than Barack Obama and John McCain. They also will be deciding the fate of 34 ballot measures, including proposals to ban gay marriage, criminalize all abortions and revisit immigration policy.
The three states are the biggest battlegrounds in a busy year for ballot initiatives. A total of 153 proposals await voters in 36 states this election cycle,including 59 measures that were placed on the ballot by activist groups rather than state legislatures. So-called "citizen initiatives" often require the collection of tens of thousands of signatures to qualify for the ballot.
High-profile measures across the country range this year from a repeal of the income tax in Massachusetts to legalization of physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in Washington . Only Oregon currently has a so-called "death with dignity" law.
Other closely watched proposals would boost renewable energy requirements in Missouri, expand health insurance by adding up to 30,000 children in Montana and authorize gambling to pay for education in cash-strapped Maryland. In Michigan, voters could lift a 30-year ban on stem-cell research and authorize the use of medical marijuana.
Californians will consider whether to borrow $10 billion for a high-speed bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco , reduce criminal penalties for tens of thousands of drug offenders and give redistricting authority to a commission instead of the state Legislature. In all, the Golden State has a dozen measures on the ballot.
While social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and affirmative action are scattered throughout state ballots, the diversity of this year's measures stands in contrast to previous election cycles, when similar proposals appeared in many states and attracted nationwide attention, making them issues in presidential and congressional races.
In 2004, for example, 11 states took up bans on gay marriage, raising speculation that the measures helped President Bush win re-election with the support of conservatives. In 2006, six states voted on increases in the minimum wage, an issue favorable to Democrats who regained control of Congress. (Click here for a searchable database of state ballot initiatives dating to 1902).
"I think (2008) is notable in how it's not notable. We're not seeing a national agenda being set by ballot measures this election cycle," said Daniel A. Smith, who follows state initiatives and is a political science professor at the University of Florida . In the past, Smith said, explosive social issues like gay marriage and the minimum wage helped candidates "frame the debate," a phenomenon he said is missing this year.
Still, individual initiatives have attracted considerable attention, headlined by proposals in Arizona, California and Colorado .
In Colorado - which has a nationwide high of 14 initiatives on the ballot - voters will decide on what is tantamount to the nation's strictest ban on abortion. Amendment 48, a citizen initiative placed on the ballot by activists, would define "personhood" to include "any human being from the moment of fertilization," forcing the state to provide fertilized eggs with the same legal rights as people under the Colorado Constitution.
Supporters of the initiative hope they can use it as a vehicle for overturning Roe v. Wade , the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that provided women legal protections to have abortions. But opponents, including Gov. Bill Ritter (D), say the measure could raise scores of new legal problems and a host of unintended consequences, such as requiring fertilized eggs to be counted among the state's population.
Measures limiting abortion also are on the ballot in California and South Dakota . California's measure would require doctors to notify parents before they perform abortions on minors, while South Dakota 's would ban abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother. A stricter proposal failed in South Dakota two years ago.
Gay marriage bans are back this year in Arizona, California and Florida, but it is the Golden State 's proposal that is being watched most closely, in part, because California is the nation's most populous state. Proposition 8, which would overturn the California Supreme Court's May ruling to legalize same-sex marriage, is the first initiative that would repeal existing marriage ights for gays and lesbians. Only two other states, Massachusetts and Connecticut , allow gay marriage.
Immigration will be addressed in three states, most notably Arizona , where voters will consider amending a state law cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers. The proposal, known as the "Stop Illegal Hiring Act," would increase some penalties for employers of illegal immigrants. For example, it would expand the definition of identity theft to include those who knowingly accept fake documents. But critics say the initiative is deceptive and actually would weaken state rules against hiring undocumented workers.
Another immigration-related measure in Missouri would make English the official language. In Oregon - where a dozen measures are on the ballot this year - voters could curb the length of time students with limited English skills can be taught in their native language.
Two of the biggest issues being discussed on the presidential campaign trail - health care reform and renewable energy - also are on the ballot in a handful of states, and will provide a key test of public attitudes as the next president and a new Congress prepare to take office.
Arizona voters will decide whether to ban the state from mandating health coverage, while Montana could take a very different approach. Montana 's initiative would greatly increase how many kids get health care coverage at a cost of up to $90 million a year.
On clean energy, Missouri - with its proposal to get 15 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2021 - is being watched as a possible beacon for future initiatives elsewhere. California and Colorado also have renewable energy proposals on their ballots, but the Show Me State - in the heart of middle America and a battleground in the presidential race - is not known for being "wildly pro-environment," said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center , which helps launch progressive ballot initiatives around the country.
If voters in traditionally conservative states such as Montana and Missouri decide to expand health care and require renewable energy, Wilfore said, it could send a powerful message to the next Congress and affect the first 100 days of an Obama or McCain administration.
"What initiatives do," she said, "is stiffen the spine of legislators by showing that something is popular and populist."
Here is an overview of the key ballot measures being decided this year:
Abortion : A Colorado measure would define a "person" to include "any human being from the moment of fertilization." Abortion would be banned with exceptions for rape, incest and the mother's health in South Dakota . California voters will consider for the third time requiring doctors to notify a parent before performing an abortion on a minor. If passed, the measure would make California the 36 th state to require parental involvement before a minor's abortion.
Affirmative action : Measures to end race and gender preferences in college admissions and government hiring are on the ballot in Colorado and Nebraska .
Elections : Redrawing state legislative districts in California would become the responsibility of a commission, not the Legislature. South Dakota will consider eliminating legislative term limits. Hawaiians will decide whether to lower the age qualification for governor and lieutenant governor to 25 from 30, while Coloradans will decide whether to reduce the age threshold to serve in the General Assembly to 21 from 25.
Energy : All utilities in California , including government-owned power providers, would have to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010, a standard that currently applies only to private companies. A measure in Missouri would require that 15 percent of the state's electricity come from clean energy sources by 2021. Colorado voters will decide whether to increase taxes on the oil and gas industry and channel more of the revenue to renewable energy programs.
Gambling : Maryland will decide whether to legalize slots while Arkansas , one of only eight states without a lottery, will vote on whether to approve a state-run lottery to fund college scholarships. Colorado will consider expanding the hours and games allowed at casinos, with a portion of the extra money going to financial aid for college students and Ohio will consider allowing one casino, the state's first.
Health care : Montana would extend coverage to more children, while Arizona would prohibit the state from mandating coverage. California will consider nearly $1 billion in bonds to build children's hospitals.
Immigration : Arizonans will decide whether to amend a state law that cracks down on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. English would be the official language in Missouri, and Oregon could curb length of time students with limited English skills can be taught in their native language.
Marijuana: Voters in California and Massachusetts would join 10 other states that have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while Michigan would allow the medical use of the drug.
Same-sex marriage : Initiatives to ban same-sex weddings are on the ballot in Arizona, California and Florida . Arkansas will consider allowing only married couples to serve as foster parents. Voters in California could reverse a state Supreme Court ruling that made California one of three states to legalize same-sex marriage.
Stem-cell research : Michigan voters will get to decide whether to lift a 30-year-old ban on scientific research that results in the destruction of an embryo under a pending proposal.
Taxes : The state income tax would be abolished in Massachusetts and cut in North Dakota while Coloradoans will decide whether to ditch their strictest-in-the-nation state spending cap that returned extra revenue to taxpayers. Maine will decide whether to repeal a 2008 law that increased excise taxes on beer, wine and soda. Minnesota would devote a portion of sales tax to protect wetlands.
Veterans : California would provide $1 billion to help veterans who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan buy homes. In Oklahoma, injured veterans would get a personal property tax break, while New York will give veterans an edge in public sector jobs.