Votes on minimum wage, marijuana and gun rights headline a diverse group of ballot initiatives in the upcoming midterm elections — another sign that states are taking action as federal lawmakers continue to get little done.
Ballot measures are also where states can demonstrate signature flair, and 2014 is no exception — on the docket in November are initiatives to ban foreign law and even force a change in bear hunting practices in one New England state.
States will be taking up votes on major social, economic and voting rights policies this November either neglected or floundering in Congress. Supporters of initiatives say that the flurry of ballot measures indicates that Americans are increasingly looking to states for leadership.
Here are some of the notable initiatives to look out for as November approaches.
(Full 2014 election results)
Four heavily Republican states will take votes to increase the statewide minimum wage, a major policy area President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats tried to make a defining issue of his second term.
Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — which all went for Mitt Romney in 2012 — will cast ballots to raise their respective states’ minimum wages in November.
Alaska’s Measure 3 and South Dakota’s Measure 18 would both boost the minimum wage and automatically tie future increases to inflation. Issue 5 in Arkansas — a state among the lowest minimum wages in the country at $6.25 an hour — would bump the wage up to $7.50 an hour in 2015, with additional 50-cent increase in 2016 and 2017. Nebraska’s Initiative 425, if passed, would have the minimum wage increased from $7.25 an hour to $8 in 2015 and $9 in 2016.
Paul Sonn, general counsel and program director at the National Employment Law Project and a supporter of higher minimum wage laws, said he expects all four measures to pass. He added there is a major “wave” in favor of minimum wage increases in the U.S.
“We really expect that it will build and there will even be more activity going into 2016. … There is more national attention on raising the minimum wage than in the last 15-20 years,” he said.
Since 2002, all 10 ballot measures to pass the minimum wage have passed, according to The Wall Street Journal. The 2014 poll numbers coming out of South Dakota and Alaska so far appear to point to victories for wage-hike supporters in those states.
Alabama’s Amendment 1 would approve a constitutional amendment to prohibit Alabama’s court or state Legislature from recognizing any foreign laws or laws that violate citizens’ rights. The bill, introduced by Republican state Sen. Gerald Allen and approved for a vote by the Legislature last year, is similar to a measure Allen introduced in 2012 that explicitly referenced Sharia, or Islamic, law.
Alabama would become the eighth state to pass such a law, including North Carolina, which passed a similar resolution last year without an explicit reference to Sharia.
What happens when a state’s voters approve two completely conflicting ballot measures? Washington state might find out. According to a July Elway poll, 70 percent of Washington voters support I-594, a measure that would provide universal background checks for gun buyers, including for gun shows and private sales. But the same poll shows that a plurality of voters — 46 percent — support I-591, an NRA-supported bill that would prohibit background checks on gun sales unless mandated by federal law.
A strong majority of Washington voters, 61 percent, support increased background checks on gun sales, suggesting to Elway Polling Director Stuart Elway that voters might be confused on the language. Elway also called the conflicting measures “unprecedented.”
So unprecedented, in fact, that even legal experts in the state don’t know what will happen if both pass. “We have no court case that can tell us. We get no guidance from the Constitution,” University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer told The Oregonian when asked what will happen in the event that voters approve both initiatives. “My guess is that the state Supreme Court would try to reconcile the two initiatives, but they can’t be reconciled.”
Meanwhile, Alabama’s Amendment 3 would significantly strengthen the state’s gun laws, creating a constitutional amendment to provide a “fundamental right to bear arms” in Alabama. The amendment would make Alabama the third state — behind Louisiana and Missouri — to demand “strict scrutiny” on gun laws, the highest level of judicial review.
Both Oregon and Alaska — as profiled in a July POLITICO report — have ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana. They follow the electoral success of initiatives in Colorado and Washington, which in 2012 became the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis.
Legalization advocates have noted there will almost certainly be more measures in 2016, a presidential year that will very likely bring out a larger, younger and more liberal bloc of voters that have more favorable views toward legalization. But Oregon and Alaska remain important for a legalization movement seizing on a narrative that widespread legalization is inevitable.
Florida is set to vote on Amendment 2, which would institute a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. A recent Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/UF Bob Graham Center survey reported 57 percent of likely voters support it.
Three states will vote on measures that would, if approved, establish constitutional amendments to strongly curtail abortion rights.
Both Colorado and North Dakota will vote on so-called personhood measures, amendments that would grant legal status to embryos at the point of conception.
The issue has become a politically fraught one for Colorado Republican Senate candidate Rep. Cory Gardner, who in March walked back his support for personhood after receiving heat from incumbent Sen. Mark Udall and other Democrats. Gardner called personhood a “settled issue” in the state, but Udall has taken out ads to call out Gardner’s support for other anti-abortion laws.
North Dakota’s Measure 1 would amend the constitution to include: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” The resolution is seen as perhaps having a better chance of passing in the state, which has just one abortion clinic.
Tennessee’s Amendment 1 is a sweeping resolution that would allow the state Legislature to “enact, amend, or repeal statutes” on abortion, including those relevant to those about rape or incest.
Early voting and registration
Missouri and Connecticut voters will vote to potentially join the 33 states and District of Columbia that have early voting procedures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A measure in Missouri would create a constitutional amendment to allow a six-day early voting period in time for the 2016 general election. The Connecticut measure, which passed the state House and Senate to get on the ballot, is less specific about a time frame and would instead “remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots and to permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of an election.”
Montana voters will weigh in on whether the state will get rid of same-day voter registration and instead move the last day to the Friday before Election Day.
A right-to-vote measure on the ballot in Illinois is largely seen as a preventative step against a potential push for voter ID laws in the state. The measure would create a constitutional amendment to ensure no one is denied the right to register to vote based on “race, color, ethnicity, language, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation or income.”
Maine’s Question 1 would ban the use of bait, traps and dogs to hunt bears in the state. “Baiting bears is a problematic and reckless practice,” Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting campaign director Katie Hansberry told the Portland Press Herald earlier this year. The group says that the practices have failed to stabilize the bear population as intended, that dumping food gives an unfair advantage to hunters and that bear trapping is inhumane and can leave the animals in terrible pain for many hours. Save Maine’s Bear Hunt, the major opposition group, says supporters have exaggerated their claims and that restricting bear hunting could hurt the state’s economy.
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