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Voters Pass Majority of 2020 Ballot Measure Issues

By Amanda Zoch | Nov. 9, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

As of our latest count, voters across the country approved at least 85 of 124 ballot measures on Election Day. In primary voting earlier in the year, voters decided eight additional measures: Notably, Missourians and Oklahomans both opted to expand Medicaid.

Measures get on the ballot in one of two ways: through a citizen initiative—where citizens have an idea for a statutory or constitutional change and gather signatures to place it on the ballot—or through a referral to the ballot from the legislature.

That there were just 38 citizen initiatives in this year’s general election—a drop from 60 in 2018 and 72 in 2016—was due in large part to COVID-19 and public safety measures that made in-person signature gathering nearly impossible. Voters passed at least 24 of the citizen initiatives, and that number will likely inch upward as the counts are finalized. The rest of the measures were referred to the ballot by the legislature, and more than 50 have passed.

Seventy-nine of the measures sought to make constitutional changes. Thirty-four proposed statutory changes (a Colorado measure that received voters’ approval actually makes both constitutional and statutory changes), and the other 12 included four popular referenda, four non-binding advisory questions, three bond issues and Iowa’s automatic decennial question asking whether voters want to hold a constitutional convention—to which they said “no, thank you.”

Marijuana and Other Drugs

The night’s biggest trend? Every marijuana and drug measure passed. ArizonaMontanaNew Jersey and South Dakota approved the legalization of recreational marijuana, while voters in Mississippi and South Dakota approved medical marijuana programs. Washington, D.C., voters decriminalized entheogenic plants and fungi, including psilocybin. Oregonians decriminalized small amounts of certain controlled substances, such as heroin and cocaine, and the Beaver State also legalized psilocybin—becoming the first state to do so.

Health

Health topics—including medical marijuana—were big on ballots this year. Voters approved taxes on tobacco and vapor products in Colorado and Oregon. Coloradans also approved a citizen initiative establishing a paid family and medical leave insurance program—the first state to do so through a ballot measure. Washington passed Referendum 90, which upheld the legislature’s bill requiring public schools to provide comprehensive sex education for all students. Californians rejected a citizen initiative to establish certain requirements for kidney dialysis clinics. And voters split on abortion, a ballot measure staple: Louisianans passed restrictions while Coloradans rejected them.

Elections

Measures requiring that only a citizen can vote passed in AlabamaColorado and Florida. Federal law already stipulates that voters must be citizens, so these measures likely won’t have any major effects—except in Colorado. There, the change means that 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the time of the general election will no longer be able to cast ballots in the state’s primaries. Other election reforms have fared less well. Floridians rejected a citizen initiative that would have established a top-two primary and open primary system. Ranked-choice voting failed in Massachusetts and seems likely to do so in Alaska, though that measure hasn’t been called. California rejected a legislative referral that would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, though voters in the Golden State did opt for felon voting rights reform by passing Proposition 17, which automatically restores voting rights after incarceration. And Coloradans supported the legislature’s decision to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Redistricting

With redistricting right around the corner, measures to alter the process passed in MissouriNew Jersey and Virginia. In Missouri, voters reversed their 2018 decision to use a state demographer as the primary map drawer. Old Dominion voters adopted a redistricting commission, and that change means that most states will now have a commission of some kind, though some are merely advisory, or only come into being if the legislature fails to pass maps.

Civil and Criminal Justice

California voters rejected stricter parole and sentencing policies and stopped the legislature’s efforts to replace cash bail with pretrial risk assessments. Kentucky passed Marsy’s Law, the crime victims’ bill of rights. Nebraska and Utah decided to remove language allowing slavery as a punishment from their constitutions. Michigan voters passed a legislatively referred measure requiring a search warrant to access a person’s electronic data. And Oklahoma voters declined a measure that would have prohibited a person’s past nonviolent felonies from being considered when determining a new felony sentence.

Taxes

Taxes, another hot topic, broke in both directions—with voters in some states opting for higher taxes and others choosing tax reductions. A citizen initiative to reduce the state’s income tax passed in Colorado, while an initiative to increase income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year passed in Arizona. The legislative effort in Illinois to remove the state’s flat income tax rate failed. Coloradans decided to repeal the Gallagher Amendment, which set property tax assessment rates in the state constitution. Centennial State voters also weighed in on a citizen initiative requiring voters to approve the creation of certain fee-based state enterprises that are exempt from the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights—results are close, though it looks likely to pass. In California, Proposition 15—which would tax commercial and industrial properties based on their market value, rather than purchase price—remains too close to call. Arkansans approved the continuation of a 0.5% sales tax to fund transportation, and voters in FloridaNew Jersey and Virginia passed tax deductions and exemptions for veterans—all with high margins. A proposal to increase taxes on oil and gas production has yet to be decided in Alaska.

Other Highlights

  • Florida voters chose to raise the minimum wage. Similar measures over the last five years have all passed.
  • California’s Proposition 22, the most expensive ballot measure campaign in American history, passed; it will classify most app-based transportation and delivery drivers as independent contractors, not employees.
  • Mississippians approved the state’s new magnolia flag design. The legislature put the question to voters after deciding to replace the previous flag, which included the Confederate battle emblem.
  • Gun rights were on the ballot in Alabama, Montana and Utah. Alabama voters passed two “stand your ground” rights measures, applying to churches in Franklin County and Lauderdale County. Utahns voted to establish a constitutional right to hunt and fish. In Montana, a legislative referral to remove local governments’ authority to regulate concealed carry laws is too close to call.
  • Coloradans approved a citizen initiative to reintroduce gray wolves. It’s the first time voters in any state will have a say in bringing back an endangered species.
  • Various forms of gambling were also up for a vote. Coloradans said “yes” to certain cities expanding allowed gaming types, Nebraskans passed three gambling-related measures, and Maryland and South Dakota both approved sports betting measures.
  • Voters in ArkansasFlorida and North Dakota rejected efforts to make the citizen initiative process more challenging.
  • An effort to overturn California’s affirmative action ban failed.
  • Legislatively referred measures to amend term limits passed in Arkansas and failed in Missouri.
  • Puerto Rico voted "yes" on statehood. This is the sixth time that voters have weighed in on statehood since 1967—though further action rests with Congress.

Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.

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