Social Issues Crowd State Ballots



Besides electing a president on Nov. 4, voters in some key battleground states also will face divisive social policy choices, including whether to ban gay marriage in Florida and restrict affirmative action and abortion in Colorado.

Michigan voters may be asked to end a 30-year-old ban on stem-cell research that destroys human embryos. Ohioans may decide whether sick workers should be guaranteed paid leave. Missouri voters' attitudes toward immigrants will be tested by a measure to declare English the official state language. In Washington, voters may get to weigh whether to join Oregon in legalizing assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

While the race between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama will be the headline event this fall, more than 90 statewide ballot questions will compete for voters' attention in some 27 states. As many as 60 more measures still could be added to ballots in an election that also features contests for Congress, 11 governors' posts and legislative seats in 44 states

So far, there is no single issue dominating statewide ballots, unlike in 2004 when gay marriage bans were voted on in 11 states, or in 2006, when minimum wage was on six state ballots and property rights on 12.

Among social issues, more proposals that would appeal to conservative voters than to liberals are showing up in 2008. But there is no consensus on whether ballot measures tend to drive enough voters to the polls to give an advantage to a presidential candidate.

"The real game is the presidential election," insists Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has studied ballot measures. "It's hard to imagine a ballot question would move voters in such a high-information, high-import election such as this one," he said.

The most recent test case came in 2004, when voters in the crucial state of Ohio adopted a gay-marriage ban and narrowly favored George W. Bush, cinching his re-election. There is still disagreement on whether the gay marriage issue flushed out more conservative Ohio voters for Bush.

"An initiative can help shape the debate and create a contrast between candidates, but there's no evidence to suggest a ballot initiative will increase turnout in a presidential year," said John Kraus, a spokesman for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Some conservatives, however, disagree. "Social issues and family issues bring people to the polls, and they do affect voting," said David Nammo, executive director of FRCAction, the legislative advocacy arm of the Family Research Council. He suggested that a proposed gay-marriage ban on California's ballot might help bring out enough conservatives that "California might be in play" for McCain. "It's been a long time since California was in play for a Republican," he said

At a minimum, ballot measures may force presidential candidates to take sides on contentious issues, such as with California's measure that would overturn the state Supreme Court ruling in May making the state the second after Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage. McCain has endorsed the California measure, while Obama, who previously said gay marriage should be left up to the states, announced his opposition to the proposed ban

Both Arizona, McCain's home state, and Colorado, a key swing state where Democrats will officially nominate Obama for president, are expected to have affirmative action measures to end racial and gender preferences in college admissions and government hiring. Colorado voters also will be asked a beginning-of-life issue: whether to define a "person" as "any human being from the moment of fertilization."

Arizonans also will get the chance to reverse their decision in 2006 when the state became the first to reject a ballot initiative to prohibit same-sex marriage. Still awaiting approval for the ballot is a measure that would permanently revoke the business license of employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. Voters there endorsed four immigration measures in 2006, including one banning illegal immigrants from receiving day-care funding and in-state tuition.

Abortion again will be on the ballot in South Dakota, where voters in 2006 threw out a strict abortion ban intended to invite a re-examination of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing the procedure. This year's measure also would ban abortion but carves out exceptions for rape, incest and the mother's health. California voters will decide whether doctors must notify a parent before performing an abortion for a minor. A similar measure was defeated in 2006.

In addition to the more than 90 measures already approved for this fall's ballot, another 35 ballot questions have been submitted to election officials for approval, and signatures still are being collected on another 30 petitions in Colorado, North Dakota and Ohio, where deadlines for submitting ballot measures fall in the first week of August , said Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks ballot measures for the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Click here for NCSL's searchable ballot measure data base that goes back to 1902.)

Still, 2008 isn't shaping up as a record year for ballot measures. In previous presidential election years, voters faced some 160 measures in 2004, more than 200 in 2000, and 240 in 1996, tying the high-water mark set in 1914

California, with a dozen, has the most measures so far this year. But Colorado and Oregon could wind up with even longer ballots than California's if pending proposals are certified.

Often overshadowed by California's gay-marriage issue is a proposal pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to take the politics out of redistricting statehouse seats. The measure would strip the Legislature of its power to redraw California's legislative districts and give the job to a 14-member independent commission. While 21 other states have commissions to redraw election districts, most are not independent but are appointed by the legislatures and/or governors.

An even bigger power upheaval could be afoot in Michigan. A proposed ballot measure by "Reform Michigan Government Now" not only would hand state legislative redistricting to an independent commission but also would shrink both legislative chambers and reduce lawmakers' salaries. The Detroit Free Press cited documents indicating the measure was designed to give Democrats control of all three branches of state government.

In South Dakota, voters will consider eliminating term limits for state lawmakers, the first time a Legislature has asked voters to do so, Bowser of NCSL said.

Gambling looms large in Maryland, which will decide whether to legalize up to 15,000 slot machines and end a long-running feud in Annapolis. Arkansas, one of only eight states without a lottery, will vote on whether to OK a state-run lottery to fund college scholarships.

Payday lenders are fighting back in Ohio and potentially in Arizona with measures that seek to repeal state laws protecting borrowers who take out the short-term, high-interest loans. Voters in Maine will decide whether to repeal a 2008 law that increased excise taxes on beer, wine and soda.

Also on the tax front, the state income tax would be abolished in Massachusetts under a measure similar to one that voters narrowly defeated six years ago, while Florida will decide whether to swap a higher sales tax for lower property taxes. A measure to limit state spending is circulating in Maine. In 2006, Maine , Nebraska and Oregon voters rejected ballot measures that would cap increases in state spending. Other various tax proposals are pending in Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota and Washington.

Voters in Florida and California already have weighed in on several high-stakes measures this year.

Florida voters Jan. 29 endorsed a measure championed by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to revamp the state's property-tax system. California voters in February rejected a measure to reduce the time a lawmaker can serve in the Legislature to 12 years from 14 but endorsed casino deals Schwarzenegger negotiated with four American Indian tribes. And in June, California voters opted to restrict government's ability to seize most private homes for redevelopment, rejecting a competing but more stringent eminent-domain proposal.

"Voter fatigue has to be real," said Sasha Horwitz of the Center for Governmental Studies, a think tank based in Los Angeles. "I'm sure some voters are getting tired (of all the ballot measures) and will just vote 'no,'" he said.


Related Stories