State Voters Decide Policy Issues

(from Maine Townsman, November 2004)
By Kavan Peterson,

The American electorate that so narrowly divided over the presidential race swung many ways on a raft of ballot initiatives ranging from legalizing pot in three states to banning same-sex marriage in 11.

Voters in 34 states weighed in on a total of 163 local referenda and ballot initiatives that varied from the socially and politically lofty to the mundane and downright odd.

California voters approved a groundbreaking measure that earmarks $3 billion for embryonic stem cell research. Colorado voters defeated a measure to change the state’s winner-take-all electoral vote system to proportional allocation, denying Sen. John Kerry any reward in a state he narrowly lost to President George W. Bush.

But by far the most controversial ballot question – one that would write same-sex marriage bans into state constitutions — was overwhelmingly adopted in all 11 states where it was up for a vote.

"In many states this year, conservative issues dominated the ballot. (Gay marriage bans) passed across the board by wide margins,” said Jennie Bowser, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

The amendments were approved, often by huge margins, in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah and even Oregon – the one state where gay rights activists had hoped to prevail.

They generally passed with a 3-1 margin or better, except in Oregon, where early returns suggested the proposal succeeded by about 56 percent.

“It is always wrong to put basic rights up to a popular vote,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on marriage equality, and it will base its decision on the U.S. Constitution, not anything in any of the state constitutions.”

Also among hot-button issues were several criminal justice and tort reform measures.

In California, a proposal to relax the state’s “three-strikes” law, requiring that a third offense be a serious or violent crime, was narrowly defeated. Proposition 66 received only 47 percent of the vote. But Prop 69, which requires anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony to submit DNA samples for a crime database starting in 2009, was approved, trumping concerns raised by privacy advocates.

Voters in three states - Alaska, Montana and Oregon – addressed the use of marijuana.

Alaska residents agreed by a healthy majority not to become the first state to legalize possession, sale and cultivation of marijuana by anyone over 21. The measure would have allowed the weed to be regulated like alcohol or tobacco.

Montana became the ninth state to allow use of marijuana by patients whose doctors have prescribed it for various medical ailments, but Oregon rejected an initiative that would have dramatically expanded its existing medical marijuana program.

On tort reform, voters in four states - Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon and Florida – gave mixed results on medical malpractice measures. Florida voters passed a package of measures that would limit lawsuits and cap non-economic damages. Nevada and Wyoming’s results were mixed: caps on non-economic damages were approved by Nevada voters, but defeated in Wyoming.

The adoption of California’s Proposition 71 by a margin of 59 per cent to 41 to allocate $3 billion in state bonds over 10 years for controversial embryonic stem cell puts the state at loggerheads with President Bush.

The measure effectively circumvents Bush’s 2001 limit on government-backed stem cell research to find cures to diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s. Bush’s position was prompted by religious opposition to the destruction of human embryos.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke ranks with the president and the Republican Party to support the measure, backed by stars such as Michael J. Fox, the late Christopher Reeve and former first lady Nancy Reagan.

Opponents said cash-strapped California could ill-afford the measure, which will have to be paid for with borrowed money.

Arizonans adopted a measure branded as “anti-immigrant” because it requires state residents to prove they’re U.S. citizens before they can receive benefits such as welfare. The measure requires, among other stipulations, that state employees report any person applying for “public benefits” without proper immigration status to federal authorities.

Gambling was another big issue.

Washington voters turned down a tax cut because it would have flowed from an expansion of gaming. Sponsored by anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman, Initiative 892 would have allowed non-tribal entities to operate slot machines with the revenue going to offset property taxes. California voters rejected two measures backed by Native American gaming interests that would have expanded gambling in that state.

Michigan voters demanded a veto over any new gaming. Nebraska defeated a gaming proposal passed by the Legislature and appear to have defeated three citizen-led initiatives by narrow margins. Oklahoma voters agreed to a new lottery, dedicating its revenues to education.

Voters in Arkansas and Montana decided not to relax term limits.

All told, voters considered 50 citizen initiatives, 101 legislative referenda, two popular referenda and one other ballot measure this year.