Ballot Fatigue?

10/1/2014

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | October-november  2014

Voters have a slew of ballot questions to answer, but not as many as in previous years.

By Wendy Underhill

Voters soon will not only decide who their governors, congressmen and legislators will be, they’ll also answer statewide ballot questions that can be summed up with the old saw: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Some issues are old standbys (taxes, gambling, education). Most are borrowed ideas from neighboring states. As for blue, four measures relate to water quality, and water’s blue, right?

So what’s new? There are fewer ballot measures than in years past. Voter fatigue may be a factor.

This November, voters will face 147 statewide ballot measures. That’s down from an average of 175 for even-numbered years since 2000.

The downturn is reflected in the two most common kinds of ballot measures: initiatives and referenda. This year’s total of 38 initiatives—measures placed on the ballot by voter petition in the 24 states that allow it—is lower than any year since at least 1980. In fact, it’s not much more than half the average for recent even-year elections. The high-water mark came in 2006, when motivated groups sent 76 initiative questions directly to citizens to decide.

Legislative referenda are down too, with just 90 this year. That compares to 115 in 2012 and 121 in 2010.

Why are the numbers low? The dip may be simply a valley in a naturally occurring peaks-and-valleys oscillation. Or it could be that both lawmakers and citizen groups are responding to voters’ frustration over long ballots.

As for initiatives, it could be that the process has become prohibitively expensive and exhausting.

“You have to have a pretty dedicated public following an issue to get it on the ballot and to win these days,” says Craig Burnett, a political scientist from North Carolina University at Wilmington.

There is one uptick in ballot measures this year, however, and that is with advisory questions. Thanks to Illinois, there are five of these nonbinding questions that ask voters for their opinions, but don’t have the force of law if passed. Voters in the Land of Lincoln will answer questions on the minimum wage, insurance coverage for contraception and a “millionaire tax” to fund education. Why ask voters if their answers don’t matter? Some say that these measures are just efforts to get out the vote.

Still Something for Everyone

All politics may be local, but policy debates often are quite similar in statehouses coast to coast. As such, they provide lawmakers everywhere with the best preference polling possible on issues that may be coming soon to a chamber or ballot box near them.

Virtually all the big issues of the day are on a ballot somewhere, even with the lower-than-usual number. The only perennial favorite that’s missing is marriage. It’s been a rare year since 2000 that something related to the definition of a marriage has not been on a ballot somewhere. Before Maine voters approved of marriages between same-sex couples in 2012, ballot measures defining marriage as between a man and a woman were the favored ones.

What else is on ballots this year? Money matters, of course, and oh-so-much more. Below is an alphabetical review.

Abortion

For the third time, Colorado voters will consider whether to include “unborn human beings” as “people” in the criminal code and whether to include “unborn humans” in the definition of wrongful death. Under the measure, the death of an unborn child due to a criminal act such as domestic violence or drunken driving could be prosecuted as homicide.

In North Dakota, voters will be asked whether to guarantee in the state constitution “that the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” Tennessee’s proposed amendment takes a different tack. It would establish that nothing in the state constitution secures or protects the right to an abortion and that the legislature has the power to enact laws on abortion.

Crime

If California’s Proposal 47 passes, the Golden State would join many other states in reducing certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. This trend is driven in large part by the cost of incarceration. North Carolina voters will have the chance to say whether defendants may waive a jury trial and go before a judge instead. Missouri’s voters will decide whether to allow a defendant’s prior criminal history to be brought up in court when a sex crime against a minor is involved. And in Illinois, lawmakers are asking voters whether to expand crime victims’ rights in the state constitution.

Education

Education measures run the gamut from preschool to graduate school. And the common thread in all of them? Education takes money. In Hawaii, voters will decide whether state funding should go to certain private preschool programs. Washington voters will weigh in (for the second time in a decade) on school class sizes. Oregonians will consider whether to set up a special scholarship fund. New York residents are being asked to approve $2 billion in new bonds for education. And in Nevada, voters will decide on a 2 percent margin tax on business revenues over $1 million.

Elections

Connecticut and Missouri voters will decide whether to allow early voting. If the measures pass, these states would join 36 others that allow some form of pre-Election Day voting. 

Oregon voters will decide whether to replace traditional Democratic and Republican primaries with an “open” or “top-two” primary, as neighboring California and Washington have done. If passed, all candidates for office, regardless of party, would run on one primary ticket, with only the top two vote-getters moving on to compete in the general election.

Proponents believe “closed” party primaries draw voters with extreme ideologies that only deepen partisanship and that the “top-two” version will counteract that. Although the jury is still out on whether that’s true, it’s clear that an open system allows the one-third of registered voters who don’t affiliate with a party to participate in primaries.

Environment

Massachusetts voters will decide whether to extend the state’s bottle deposit law to more containers. Alaskans will vote on whether to require the Legislature to approve mining proposals that might affect the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. New Jerseyites will vote on whether to raise the corporation business tax dedicated to environmental protection from 4 percent to 6 percent.

Gambling

Many states depend on gambling revenues, so it is an “evergreen” issue for voters. This year, Colorado is considering tacking casino-style gambling onto existing racetracks to replace waning revenues from horse and dog racing. The proceeds would be earmarked for education.

The most surprising measure this year comes from Massachusetts. Voters will decide whether to undo a 3-year-old law permitting casinos, although none are yet operational there. If passed, the Bay State would be the first to roll back gambling. Currently, 22 states allow casino gambling.

GMOs

Oregon and Colorado will decide whether foods that have genetically modified organisms must be labeled as such. Similar measures were defeated in Washington in 2013 and Oregon in 2012. It seems as though proponents of GMO labeling are looking for a “win” somewhere, with the hope that this issue, like the legalization of medical marijuana, will then spread to other states.

Guns

This year, Washington is the center of a debate over background checks for gun ownership. One measure calls for more background checks, while another would limit background checks to only those mandated by federal law. It’s not clear what will happen if both pass.

Health

All eyes are on Arizona, where a “Dallas Buyers Club” measure, if passed, would permit people with terminal illnesses to try drugs that are not yet fully approved and licensed. The rapid spread of Ebola in western Africa is helping this measure gain national attention. In California, voters could pass a first-in-the-nation requirement that doctors be tested for drugs. Californians are also being asked to increase malpractice coverage. South Dakota would join many other states in requiring health insurance companies to list “any willing provider” who is qualified and meets the conditions for participation with that insurer.

Marijuana

Two policy questions surround marijuana. The first is whether adults should be permitted to use marijuana recreationally. Voters in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia will address that question. Voters in Colorado and Washington answered “yes” in 2012.

The second question is whether marijuana should be permitted for medical purposes. Voters in Florida and Guam will have their say in November. Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers enacted legislation to legalize limited medical marijuana for use with specific conditions such as childhood seizures.

Minimum Wage

Should states set a minimum higher than the federal one, currently $7.25? So far, 23 states and the District of Columbia have set higher minimums. Along with Illinois’s advisory questions, Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota have ballot measures for the voters to weigh in on.

Redistricting

New Yorkers will vote on whether the Empire State will use a bipartisan redistricting commission to determine boundaries for congressional and legislative seats. More than a dozen other states have some variation on this theme.

Taxes

Holding the line on new taxes has been a ballot box staple since Californians passed Proposition 13 in 1978. It focused on limiting property taxes, but over the years, citizens have targeted just about every kind of tax. Georgia is voting on a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the General Assembly from raising the maximum income tax rate. If the voters say “yes,” this measure won’t have an immediate impact on tax rates, but it will restrict decision making in the future. In Tennessee, which does not collect income taxes, citizens will vote on whether to permanently prohibit the implementation of them.

On a different kind of tax path, Massachusetts citizens are being asked whether to eliminate the practice of indexing gas taxes to the cost of living. Right now, the tax is set to increase as the cost of living goes up.

Transportation

Transportation finance and funding measures are ballot regulars. This year, Louisiana’s measure would create a state bank to loan money for infrastructure projects. A Texas amendment would transfer general revenues to the state highway fund. And Wisconsin’s Question 1 would ensure that state transportation system revenues are not diverted to any other purpose than funding transportation systems.

Water

California is the big fish in the sea of water-related measures, with a proposed $7 billion bond on the ballot. If approved, it will pay for improvements in water quality, supply and infrastructure. Smaller measures in other states include $10 million for clean drinking water and wetlands in Maine, bonds to create loans for dam and reservoir owners in Hawaii, a proposal to establish the Artificial Reef Development Fund in Louisiana, and a proposed fund to protect wetlands in Florida.

Stay Tuned

This “A-to-W” review is hardly the whole enchilada when it comes to 2014 ballot measures. No wonder voters may be feeling just a little fatigued. Many of these policy questions take a considerable amount of brain power to answer. Just ask a lawmaker.

Check out NCSL’s online database of all state ballot measures at www.ncsl.org. It will be updated throughout election night as results roll in.

Ballot Measures Primer

“Ballot measure” is a catch-all phrase that refers to any policy or finance question that appears on a ballot. Within this broad category are four significant subgroups. 

Citizens’ Initiative: Twenty-four states allow citizens to place statutory—and, in some cases constitutional—amendments on the ballot after gathering a certain number of signatures from registered voters. Initiatives are sometimes referred to as “direct democracy” because they bypass the legislative process. States vary in how many signatures are required and in other details.

Legislative Referendum: In all 50 states, the legislature may “refer” a measure to the voters for their approval. Legislatures may do this to avoid a governor’s veto or to let the most contentious issues be decided by the people. It is used more in some states than in others. 

Popular Referendum: Twenty-four states allow citizens to petition to have a newly enacted law go to a vote of the people. Details vary by state on the number of voters’ signatures required and how much time is allowed after the law is passed.

Advisory Question: Legislatures may ask voters their opinions about certain statutes or language in the state constitution. The results of the measures, however, are nonbinding.

Wendy Underhill manages NCSL's Elections team.

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