On Nov. 6, Americans will vote on at least 174 ballot measures in 38 states, weighing in everything from fighting the influence of money in politics to abolishing the death penalty in what some say is an example of direct democracy at its finest.
A product of the nation’s emerging progressive moment at the turn of the 20th century, the ballot measures were described by President Theodore Roosevelt as something that “should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.” But not all ballot measures are the same: An initiative is a proposal for a new state law or constitutional amendment (which, if passed, cannot be vetoed by the governor), while a popular referendum is a measure that gives voters an opportunity to veto a law recently passed by the legislature. Under both, a proposal can only land on the ballot through a petition process.
There are far more popular referendums on the ballot this year than usual, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. During the 2008 election, there were two in the entire nation. This year, there are 12 -- a sign of the stark political polarization currently dividing the electorate this election season.
The referendums and initiatives in play this year offer a glimpse into the nation’s evolving views on issues such as campaign finance, marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights. Here are 10 of the most prominent issues on the ballot this year:
Marijuana: While medical pot is already legal in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, in November all three states will have a chance to legalize and regulate the sale of small quantities for recreational use. Although the Colorado and Washington initiatives are polling fairly well among voters, a September SurveyUSA poll indicates the measure is trailing among Oregonians. Arkansas and Massachusetts will both consider proposals to legalize medical marijuana, while Montana will vote on a referendum to allow the state to substitute its current medical marijuana law (passed via a 2004 citizens petition) for a stricter law proposed by the state legislature last year.
Abolishing the death penalty: California’s Proposition 34 would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, an alternative that advocates argue is more humane and exceedingly less expensive than executing prisoners via lethal injection. If the measure passes, the Golden State will be the 18th state in the nation to abolish capital punishment. In a similar measure, California voters will also vote on Proposition 36, which would change the state’s “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” law (blamed by some for the state’s horribly overcrowded prison system) to only impose a life sentence if a defendant’s third felony conviction is of a serious or violent nature.
Getting money out of politics: After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision invalidated Montana’s century-old campaign finance restrictions, state residents responded with a ballot initiative demanding that state lawmakers draft legislation that would both reject the idea of corporate personhood and support efforts to enact an amendment to the U.S. Constitution overruling Citizens United. Similarly, Colorado’s Amendment 65 -- supported by advocacy groups such as Public Citizen and Common Cause -- would urge state congressional delegates to support efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban corporate personhood. While California’s Proposition 32 would not call for a new constitutional amendment, it would ban corporate and union contributions to state and local political campaigns.
Marriage equality: Efforts to ban same-sex marriage are one reason behind the spike in voter referendum’s this year. In Maryland and Washington, both of which passed laws this year legalizing gay marriage, opponents are backing referendums that would prevent those laws from being enacted. Meanwhile, Minnesota residents will vote on an initiative that would alter the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. There is some good news for marriage equality supporters: Maine could be the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote as a result of Question 1, which would overturn a 2009 ballot measure that banned gay marriage.
Immigration: Like marriage equality, this is another issue that has spawned a referendum effort. Maryland voters will decide whether a state Dream Act (which would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges), passed by the legislature this year, should be enacted into law. If voters ultimately hold up the law, Maryland will be the first state in the country to approve a version of the Dream Act by popular vote.
Restricting abortion: Florida’s Amendment 6 would alter the state constitution to prohibit the use of public funds for abortion (unless it is necessary to save the mother’s life) or any health insurance plans that include abortion coverage. It also stipulates that the state constitution cannot be interpreted to include broader rights regarding abortion that those specified in the U.S. Constitution.
Seizing the Grand Canyon? Arizona’s Proposition 120 would declare the state has exclusive authority over air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and all other natural resources found in the state, excluding Native American territory. But some public policy analysts are questioning what that would mean for the legality if lands designated as national parks, such as the Grand Canyon. Although lawmakers in support of the measure argue it is strictly a state’s right issue -- they say Arizona does not have as much control of its land as other states -- both the Arizona Wilderness Coalition and the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter warn the measure could be a push to gain control of national parks and wildlife refuges so the state can undermine federal environmental protections.
Death with dignity: Massachusetts could be one of the few in the nation to allow physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients with the passage of the Death with Dignity Act, which will appear as Question 2 on the Bay State ballot. Recent surveys from Public Policy Polling and the Boston Globe show strong support for the measure.
Voter suppression: Minnesota residents will not need a photo ID to cast their ballot this year, but they soon will if they approve the state’s Amendment 2. Legislation to enact similar laws, which would require all voters in the state show photo identification before voting, was recently passed by the Minnesota Legislature and then promptly vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Identifying GMOs: If passed, California’s Proposition 37 would require labeling on all raw or processed foods made from plants or animals that were genetically altered, as well as prohibit retailers from advertising those products as “natural” foods. While supporters argue consumers have a right to know what is in their food -- especially since the potential health consequences of consuming genetically modified foods are still unknown -- opponents say it would be expensive to implement and would encourage “government bureaucracy.”