In November, citizens will determine much more than who the next president will be.
By Wendy Underhill and Princess Umodu
POST-ELECTION ANALYSIS: How did the races and the many ballot questions affect the legislative landscape? Read our elections wrap-up here.
This year’s crop of statewide ballot measures challenges voters to read carefully, listen beyond the sound bites and thoughtfully consider policy questions that directly affect their lives.
Some of the issues lean right, some lean left, though most don’t lean at all. Regardless, they’re being decided even now by citizen lawmakers across the country in places with early voting.
As of mid-September, there were 145 measures in 34 states. That’s about the same as in 2014, when voters faced 147 measures in 41 states and the District of Columbia. But it’s nowhere near the 240 that voters were asked to consider in 1996, the peak year.
This year’s total includes 65 legislative referrals, 74 citizen initiatives, four popular referenda and two advisory measures. Notably, there were just 35 citizen initiatives in 2014—a sign, perhaps, that bypassing the legislature via “direct democracy” is an increasingly attractive strategy.
Voters have approved about 45 percent of all citizen initiatives and about 75 percent of legislative referrals and bond issues since 1996.
Measure for Measure
The total number of ballot measures has remained fairly constant over the last few elections, but the subcategories tell a different story; the number of legislative referrals is down, while that for citizen initiatives is up.
Legislative referrals: Measures “referred” to the ballot by legislators, for example, when a change to the constitution requires a vote of the people, or when an issue is controversial, such as legalizing medical marijuana.
Citizen initiatives: Measures placed on the ballot by citizens who’ve convinced enough registered voters to sign a petition.
Other: Measures, such as popular referenda, or votes forced by citizens attempting to repeal an existing law, and advisory questions, placed by legislators to get a sense of how the public feels about a certain topic.
Surprisingly, there are no ballot measures this year on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, reproductive choices or abortion. Still, there’s no lack of controversy.
The headline grabbers include marijuana (both medical and recreational), campaign finance, the minimum wage and the death penalty. There is a typical assortment of tax measures, bond issues to fund transportation or other infrastructure projects, and a variety of questions that appear before voters simply for legal or housekeeping reasons.
Here are the specifics.
Marijuana: Marijuana has been a ballot staple since 1996, but this year’s a bumper crop. As of mid-September, nine measures had qualified, four permitting medical marijuana (Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota) and five permitting adult recreational use (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada). The last time a particular topic was so prominent was in 2004, when defining marriage as between a man and a woman only was on 13 ballots.
Criminal Justice: Victims’ rights (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota), protecting child victims from sexual exploitation and trafficking (Georgia), pretrial release reform (New Mexico), the death penalty (California, Nebraska, Oklahoma) and parole for nonviolent offenders (California) will keep criminal justice issues in the headlines this year.
Hunting, Fishing, Farming and Ranching: Do people have a constitutional right to hunt and fish? Nineteen state constitutions say yes. Lawmakers in Indiana and Kansas are letting voters decide whether to enshrine these activities as rights, as well. In Oklahoma, the Legislature is asking voters to decide whether to add the right to farm and ranch to the state’s constitution. Voters in Montana will decide whether to ban the use of traps and snares on public lands, while citizens in Massachusetts will decide whether to prohibit the sale of eggs, veal and pork from animals confined in ways that severely limit their ability to move.
Gambling: A two-decade-long trend toward liberalizing laws on gambling continues with New Jersey’s measure to allow gambling in locations other than Atlantic City—and closer to potential New York City gamblers. Rhode Island has a measure to permit a casino near Massachusetts, while Massachusetts is asking voters about opening an additional slot parlor. Most gambling measures pass; apparently it’s easier to raise money through gambling than by general tax increases.
Guns: Voters in California, Maine, Nevada and Washington face initiatives on guns and ammunition. In Maine and Nevada, the focus is on background checks. Washingtonians will decide whether to allow the temporary removal of guns from the possession of an at-risk person. The California initiative would: address how people lose their eligibility to have a firearm (due to a felony conviction, domestic violence restraining order or other legal restriction); require a permit verifying the buyer is not barred from owning a firearm before buying ammunition; and require owners to report lost or stolen weapons.
Minimum Wage: Increasing the minimum wage was the top-of-the-ticket topic in 2014, with five states doing so by a vote of the people. This year, Arizona, Maine and Washington have measures to increase the minimum wage. In South Dakota, a ballot measure would roll back its minimum wage for teen workers.
Voting: Missouri voters will decide whether to amend their constitution to apply a strict photo-ID law at the polls. Mainers will decide whether to use ranked-choice voting instead of winner-take-all elections. (It’s the first time an alternative voting system has ever appeared on a statewide ballot.) Voters in South Dakota will decide whether to give redistricting duties to an independent commission and whether to switch to a single nonpartisan primary, where all candidates are listed on one ballot, with the top two vote-getters moving on to the general election. Colorado voters face two measures dealing with who can vote in primaries. And in Alaska, citizens would be automatically registered to vote when they sign up for the Permanent Fund if a citizen initiative passes there.
Campaign Finance: South Dakotans will decide whether to increase contribution disclosure requirements, decrease limits on contributions and initiate a public finance system. Washingtonians will vote on whether to establish their own brand of public funding for campaigns, based on a recently instituted program in Seattle. Missourians will vote on decreasing contribution limits. Voters in California and Washington will decide whether to tell their congressional delegations to either declare that money is not free speech or seek constitutional ways to undo Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited political donations from corporations. These measures are advisory only.
Transportation: In Maine, a state that puts bonds on the ballot regularly, voters will decide whether to approve $100 million for a variety of transportation projects, from major freight movement to bike and pedestrian paths. Illinois voters will decide whether to dedicate all their gas revenues to transportation; 41 states have similar laws that create “lock boxes” that ensure transportation funds aren’t raided for general-fund purposes. New Jersey voters get to decide if a portion of the diesel fuel tax should go to transportation infrastructure projects. And Louisiana voters will choose whether to establish a revenue fund to help pay for transportation projects.
Education: In different forms, education issues always appear on the ballot, with charter schools topping the hot-issue list in recent years. This time, the topics are outdoor education and retention rates in Oregon, student loans in Alaska, charter schools in Massachusetts, chronically failing schools in Georgia and English-immersion classes in California. Measures in California, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah seek funding increases for education.
Energy: Florida and Nevada residents will vote on ballot measures addressing solar energy.
Labor and Pensions: Voters in Alabama and Virginia will decide on adding the provisions of their right-to-work laws to their constitutions, potentially joining 10 other states that have done so. A citizen initiative in South Dakota, a right-to-work state, would allow “nonprofits and corporate organizations” (including unions) to collect fees from nonmembers.
Legislatures: How these institutions function is receiving an unusual amount of attention. A measure in Alabama seeks to update its impeachment laws. One in California would require that all bills be made public at least 72 hours before they are heard. Minnesota voters will decide whether to establish a commission to approve legislative salaries. Idaho voters could give the Legislature the right to review all administrative actions by the executive branch. And North Dakotans will decide whether to explicitly require legislators to live in the districts they represent, a common practice in most states.
Cigarette Taxes: Tax increases on tobacco products are on ballots in California, Colorado, Missouri and North Dakota. Missouri, which has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation, has two tax-increase measures on the ballot. If either passes, it will be the state’s first increase since 1993. Voters in California are being asked whether to raise the tax from 87 cents to $2.87 per pack; in Colorado, from 84 cents to $2.59; and in North Dakota, from 44 cents to $2.20.
Other Taxes: Taxes are always on the ballot somehow, somewhere. Attention-grabbing measures include a state sales tax increase in Oklahoma, a carbon emissions tax in Washington and increases to corporate taxes in Louisiana and Oregon.
Health: Health care reform is coming off the national stage and into the states’ arena. Colorado has an initiative to establish a state-funded, single-payer health care system and another to become the sixth “medical aid in dying” state. The latter would allow a terminally ill adult to take a drug to cause death. California’s health initiative would limit the amount paid by Medi-Cal for prescription drugs to the discounted price paid by the Veterans Administration.
One-offs: Oklahomans will decide whether grocery stores can sell alcohol seven days a week. South Dakotans face two measures to rein in payday lenders by capping interest rates. Rhode Islanders could establish a state ethics commission. And Californians will decide whether to require adult film actors to use condoms.
Voters have their work cut out for them. We’ll report on what they decide next issue. Stay tuned.
Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s program director for elections and redistricting; Princess Umodu is an intern with the Center for Legislative Research and Support and a student at Stanford University.