Home – Citizen Initiatives Push Ballot Measures Left This Year

Citizen Initiatives Push Ballot Measures Left This Year

 In addition to state legislative elections that could flip party control of 18 chambers across the country, 157 statewide ballot measures will also be contested in 35 states on Nov. 8. The measures include an unusually high number of citizen initiatives, many of which favor left-leaning issues like marijuana legalization, raising the minimum wage and gun control.


The total number of measures on state ballots this November is in line with totals in other recent, even-year general elections (the average for the last three is 160) but down significantly from the highs of 1996 and 1998, 240 and 235 respectively, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Ballot Measures Database. The number of measures placed on the ballot by citizen petition drives rather than legislative action, however, is more than double that in 2014 (76 compared to 35) and the highest number in a decade (with the period from 2000 to 2014 averaging 54). This election also marks the first since 1950 that the number of citizen initiatives exceeds the number of measures referred by the legislature, although just barely, 76 versus 75.


One reason for the increase, according to Josh Altic of the website Ballotpedia, is that the number of signatures required to qualify initiatives for the ballot in many states this year was relatively low. That’s because the states’ signature requirements are tied to voter turnout in the prior statewide election, and turnout in 2014 was the lowest it’s been since World War II. In California, for instance, 27 percent fewer signatures were needed than in 2014 (366,000 compared to about 505,000 for standard initiatives and 586,000 versus about 808,000 for constitutional amendments). California voters will consider 17 ballot measures this year, compared to just four in 2014.


Wendy Underhill, who covers ballot measures and other election-related issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, suggested the state of the economy may also have something to do with the increase in citizen initiatives this year.


“The Great Recession hit in 2008, and the economy was still hurting in 2010, 2012 and 2014, so it may be that the cost of getting initiatives on the ballot was just too great” in those election years, she told the Cap J.


Bloomberg’s Paula Dwyer cited yet another reason for the initiative spike: frustration among the politically left-leaning.


“With Republicans now in control of 33 state legislatures, and complete control of governorships and legislatures in 30 states, liberals’ frustration runs high,” she wrote. “They've turned to citizen initiatives as an outlet.”


The evidence of that, she went on to say, is “both the increase and nature of November's crop of initiatives,” with the “bulk of them” advocating “liberal causes.”


One of the hottest issues for ballot measures this year is, in fact, the legalization of marijuana. Voters in five states - Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada - will consider whether to decriminalize it for recreational use, while voters in four states - Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota - will weigh medical marijuana measures. All nine of the measures are citizen initiatives.


If approved by voters in California, Proposition 64 - which would allow individuals 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow as many as 6 marijuana plants for recreational use, as well as impose a 15-percent tax on retail sales of the drug - could give a major boost to the recreational marijuana movement, which has scored victories in four states and the District of Columbia so far. California, the nation’s most populous state, was the first to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996, and 24 other states have taken that action since. The state’s voters rejected a legalization measure (Prop. 19) in 2010, by a vote of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent. But recent polling indicates public opinion has shifted, with a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showing 58-percent support for Prop. 64. Backers of the measure have also raised over 8 times more than opponents, $16,970,726 - more than half of that sum coming from Napster founder and former Facebook President Sean Parker - compared to $2,026,501, according to Ballotpedia’s analysis of campaign filings with the California Secretary of State’s office.


Another coup for the recreational marijuana movement would be the passage of Arizona’s Prop. 205, demonstrating that legalization is possible even in a state that voted Republican in every presidential election but one (Clinton v. Dole in 1996) since 1952. But according to a poll conducted in August by OH Predictive Insights, 51 percent of likely voters oppose that measure.


Raising the minimum wage, another issue that is popular among progressives - although others, including some conservatives, support it too - also figures prominently on the November ballots. Voters in four states - Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington - will consider initiatives aimed at increasing their respective minimum wage rates. Voters in South Dakota, meanwhile, will consider a minimum wage measure of a different type but which also made its way to the ballot via a citizen petition drive. Referred Law 20 is a popular referendum on legislation signed into law last year (SB 177) making workers under 18 ineligible for a minimum wage increase, from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour, approved by the state’s voters in 2014 (Measure 18). If the measure passes, SB 177 will stand and the minimum wage for those under 18 will drop back down to $7.25 per hour. Failure of the measure would effectively veto SB 177.


Four states will consider gun control measures on Nov. 8. California’s Prop. 63, an initiative engineered by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), would ban the sale of large-capacity magazines and require background checks for ammunition purchases, as well as make stealing a gun a felony and require the reporting of lost or stolen firearms. Maine’s Question 3  and Nevada’s Question 1 - both indirect initiatives, originated by citizen petition drives but also requiring legislative action to make it onto the ballot - provide for background checks for firearm sales or transfers between parties that are not licensed gun dealers. And Washington’s Initiative 1491 would allow courts to issue “extreme risk protection orders,” barring individuals from accessing or possessing firearms. All of the measures have strong voter support, according to recent polls.


There are also a number of healthcare-related initiatives on the November ballots. The highest-profile of them is California’s Prop. 61 , which would prohibit state agencies from paying more for prescription drugs than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for them. Supporters of the measure, including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is also the measure’s sponsor, have, according to Ballotpedia’s calculations, contributed $14,550,554 to the Yes on 61 campaign, while opponents, including major pharmaceutical companies, have contributed over five times more, $86,894,199, to the No on 61 campaign, making Prop. 61 the priciest ballot-measure contest in the nation this year. But in spite of the big spending by Big Pharma, an average of recent polls shows 69.5 percent support for the measure.


Another big-budget healthcare initiative on the California ballot is Prop. 52, which would require a two-thirds supermajority vote by the Legislature to amend a current law imposing fees on hospitals used to obtain federal matching funds and pay for Medi-Cal and other healthcare services. The measure, backed by the California Hospital Association, was actually intended for the state’s 2014 ballot but failed to qualify in time. Supporters of the measure include both California’s Democratic and Republican parties. And the Yes on 52 campaign has raised about $60,040,523 from donors that include the California Health Foundation and Trust, Dignity Health and Sutter Health, while the No campaign has raised about $11,562,866, mainly from the Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers West.


A health-related initiative that could only appear on California’s ballot is Prop. 60, which would require actors in pornographic films to use condoms and require the producers of such films to pay for actors’ vaccinations and medical exams. Supporters have raised $4,147,809, over 10 times more than the $391,289 raised by opponents, and a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll last month showed 55 percent of registered voters favored the measure.


Colorado voters will also consider a pair of health-related initiatives. Amendment 69 would create a state-run universal healthcare system funded through an additional 10 percent income tax. An average of recent polls shows 60.5 percent of voters oppose the measure. Prop. 106 would allow physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. A recent poll by Colorado Mesa University, Rocky Mountain PBS and Franklin & Marshal College showed 70 percent support for that measure.


There are a host of other left-leaning initiatives on states’ ballots, including measures banning the death penalty (California Prop. 62); protecting animal rights (Massachusetts Question 3 , Montana I-177 and Oregon Measure 100); imposing election or campaign finance reforms (Maine Question 5, Missouri Amendment 2 and Washington Initiative 1464); and increasing or extending taxes (California Props. 55 and 56; Colorado Amendment 72; Maine Question 2; Missouri Constitutional Amendment 3 and Prop. A; North Dakota Initiated Statutory Measure 4; Oklahoma SQ 779; Oregon Measure 97; and Washington Initiative 732).


There are also a number of progressive ballot measures that were legislatively referred, such as California Prop. 58, eliminating the English-only immersion requirement for teaching non-English speakers in public schools. But there are plenty of right-leaning issues on state ballots as well, including measures supporting the death penalty (California Prop. 66; Nebraska Referendum 426; and Oklahoma SQ 776); protecting the right to hunt and fish (Indiana Public Question 1 and Kansas Constitutional Amendment 1) or farm and ranch (Oklahoma State Question 777); granting constitutional authority to require voters to present ID at the polls (Missouri Constitutional Amendment 6); constitutionally enshrining the “right to work” without having to join a union (Alabama Amendment 8 and Virginia “Right to Work” Amendment); allowing public money to be spent for religious purposes (Oklahoma SQ 790); repealing a ban on plastic grocery bans (California Prop. 67); and prohibiting expansion of sales and use taxes (Missouri Constitutional Amendment 4).


There are also a handful of notable measures on state ballots that have more ambiguous political leanings. For instance, Idaho’s HJR 5, which would grant that state’s Legislature the power to approve or reject rules promulgated by state agencies, was placed on the ballot by a vote of 62-3 in the House, which has 56 Republicans but also 14 Democrats, and 34-1 in the Senate, split 28 to 7 between the two parties, according to LexisNexis State Net’s legislative tracking database. Colorado’s Amendment 71, which would increase the signature requirement for ballot initiatives to 2 percent of each Senate district and require 55-percent voter support to pass constitutional amendments, is supported by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, but also by former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.


The main story of this year’s crop of ballot measures, however, is still the abundance of liberal initiatives, which could conceivably boost Democratic turnout in key presidential battleground states as some political analysts believe ballot measures aimed at banning same-sex marriage did to Republican turnout in 2004, when President George W. Bush was reelected.


There’s not a single proposed same-sex marriage ban on any state ballot this year, presumably because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year legalizing same sex marriage. But other perennial conservative issues like restricting abortion or discouraging illegal immigration aren’t on state ballots either. And that may largely be due to the Republican domination of state legislatures. At least 11 Republican-governed states have enacted 20 bills this year denying public benefits or resident student status to undocumented immigrants or requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check workers’ immigration status, and at least 26 mostly GOP-led states enacted legislation imposing restrictions on abortions or facilities that perform them, according to LexisNexis State Net’s database.


As NCSL’s Underhill put it: “If you have an interest that appeals to Republicans, you take it to the legislature, and if you have an interest that appeals to Democrats, you take it to the ballot.”