Every four years, it happens: Coverage of the presidential campaign blots out the sun, throwing all the other important things happening in the election into shadow. But if the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is the main thing you’ve been paying attention to this season, then what November will actually decide might come as a big surprise.
Abortion could be illegal after the 22nd week of pregnancy in Colorado. A handful of deep-red states might liberalize their marijuana laws, while Oregon voters will decide whether to legalize medicinal use of psilocybin (aka “magic”) mushrooms. Rhode Islanders could change their state’s name. America could triple the number of states with statewide ranked-choice voting. Floridians will decide whether to implement a top-two primary elections system — meaning that the battleground state’s marquee races in 2022 could see two Republicans or two Democrats facing off against one another in the general election. And Uber and Lyft drivers in California could see their jobs reclassified and subject to a wage floor — pending the results of the most expensive ballot campaign in American history.
These are just a few of the dozens of ballot measures that voters will decide on November 3rd.
And if you’re tempted to brush them aside as unimportant, know this: The recent past shows us that ballot measures give us some sense of the direction the country’s politics are headed. In 1994, California’s Prop 187 hinted at a future in which undocumented immigration would become a central fissure in national politics. Hawaii’s statewide 1998 vote to ban same-sex marriage was a harbinger of the anti-LGBT ballot measures that swamped the rest of the country in the mid-2000s. And a wave of marijuana-legalization ballot measures over the last decade has drastically remade the way the entire country talks about and polices pot.
So, what’s on the ballot this year, and what does that tell us about the direction American politics is headed in the 2020s? To sort through it all, POLITICO spoke with Amanda Zoch, a policy specialist at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, where she tracks statewide ballot measures. A transcript of that conversation is below, condensed and edited for length and clarity.
This November, there are around 120 ballot measures up across the country. Overall, what trends are we seeing?
Amanda Zoch: Taxes and civil/criminal justice are always big topics, and this year is no different: About a quarter of the statewide ballot measures up this year relate to taxes in some way. Similarly, marijuana and abortion have long been ballot-measure staples, and this year, we have two abortion-related measures, and several more marijuana proposals. Health and elections-related proposals are also getting a lot of attention this year, which seems appropriate given that there’s a presidential election and both are big issues. Those perhaps wouldn’t have gotten quite as much attention a couple years ago, but they are right now. We’re not really seeing a lot of environment-related measures this year, which is kind of a surprise.
This year, those citizen-driven initiatives were really affected by the pandemic.
Because it was much more difficult to gather petition signatures?
Right. How do you get signatures when you’re not supposed to leave your house or see other people? This year’s general election has 38 statewide citizen initiatives across the country. And that’s a big decrease — there were 60 in 2018 and 72 in 2016. Honestly, that’s a big story.
Let’s start with some of the election-related proposals: There are ballot measures up in Alaska and Massachusetts to implement ranked-choice voting, which lets voters rank the candidates in their order of preference instead of choosing just one — and which a lot of people think will help out third-party candidates because it diminishes the chance they’ll be “spoilers.” Maine voters adopted it in 2016. This seems like the start of a trend.
Definitely. There’s been an increase in interest in ranked-choice voting, both through ballot measures front and legislatively. We’ll see how it goes with Maine this year, if that sparks even more interest or becomes discouraging. There are actually two ranked-choice voting ballot measures up: Alaska and Massachusetts. North Dakota had been planning on having one, but the Supreme Court determined that it actually didn’t have sufficient signatures. But in Alaska and Massachusetts, those measures are generating a lot of interest. And the Alaska measure would also establish a top-four primary, where the top four vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election ballot, regardless of party. So that, plus ranked-choice voting, would be a big election change in Alaska.
Another voting-related ballot trend is the “only a citizen” initiatives in Alabama, Colorado and Florida. Can you explain that a little bit? That one is a less-familiar concept.
This one is kind of odd, because it seems like a minor linguistic change, from “every citizen can vote” to “only a citizen can vote.” Legally, I don’t think these proposals would change much, but it actually would have consequences in Colorado. Unlike Alabama and Florida, Colorado allows 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they’ll be 18 at the time of the general election. This measure, if passed, would remove that.
Citizenship is already a requirement to vote in the United States, so these proposals seem unnecessary. Some people see them as a get-out-the-vote measure — using concerns that non-citizens are voting to turn people out to the polls.
Using ballot measures to rally the base and get out the vote isn’t anything new — certainly we saw that in 2004, when conservatives used proposals that would ban same-sex marriage as a way of turning out Evangelical voters during George W. Bush’s reelection campaign. Are there any similar dynamics at play this year?
The turnout question is so hard to parse. I think claims that measures are designed to turn out people need to be taken with a grain of salt. But we do see candidates grabbing onto measures and kind of leveraging them to gain support for their party.
For example, I’m in Colorado, and we have an abortion-restriction measure on the ballot. Candidates on the right and left refer to that one as something important, a reason for voters to get to the polls. The proposals related to hot-button social issues can be incorporated into campaigns in ways that both raise the profile of the initiative but also benefit specific candidates.
Tell me more about Colorado’s abortion-restriction proposal. What would it do?
If passed, it would prohibit abortion after the 22nd week of pregnancy. Right now, Colorado doesn’t have any gestational age limits on abortion; this would seek to establish one. It allows an exception for cases where the life of the mother is at risk, but there are no other exceptions, such as for rape or incest.
Colorado also has a ballot proposal about paid family leave. I don’t recall hearing about an initiative on that topic before. Can you walk through that?
This is actually the first time this type of issue has been on a statewide ballot at all. Eight states and D.C. have these paid-leave programs, but they’ve all been created through legislation. It would establish a state-run paid family and medical leave program, and allow Coloradans up to 12 weeks of paid leave — potentially more if there are qualifying complications.
To fund this, it’s basically a new tax deducted from paychecks — 0.54 percent of your paycheck will go into a statewide pool of money to pay for it. Obviously, opponents are interested in that part. But proponents are saying that at a time when people are dealing with coronavirus, paid medical leave is becoming more and more necessary. Anecdotally, it’s the measure I see advertisements for the most in Colorado. It’s getting a lot of attention.
There are a number of proposals on the ballot related to marijuana decriminalization or legalization — many of them in states considered deeply “red.” Is it fair to say that ballot measures to liberalize marijuana policy aren’t just a blue-state trend at this point?
That’s right. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, Mississippi and South Dakota have ballot measures on the topic. The proposals in Arizona, Montana and New Jersey would all legalize recreational marijuana. South Dakota will actually vote on both medical and recreational marijuana — so that’s potentially a big change, going from not having medicinal marijuana to having legalized recreational marijuana.
Mississippi’s measure is just for medical marijuana. Voters there will actually have two questions in one: There was a citizen initiative to institute a medical marijuana initiative, but the state has an indirect citizen-initiative process, so the proposal went to the legislature, and they suggested an alternative measure that will be on the ballot as well. The first question on the ballot is, essentially, “Do you want either of these measures, or neither of these measures?” And the second is, “Which one do you prefer?”
That’s always a concern with ballot measures — how to make them more readable and easier for people to understand. Here in Colorado, my ballot was long. We had 11 measures. It’s in tiny print, and the way things are worded can be confusing, which makes voter education such an important component of ballot measure campaigns.
There are also drug-related measures other than marijuana. Oregon and Washington D.C. are voting on legalizing mushrooms, correct?
Yes. This is the first time I’m aware of where that have been statewide initiatives related to mushrooms. D.C. has a citizen initiative to decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi — which includes psilocybin, among other things. Oregon would actually go a step further and not just decriminalize but actually legalize psilocybin. It would become the first state ever to do that.
I do wonder if it’s the start of a new trend on drug-related proposals, which have mostly dealt with marijuana up until now.
So marijuana-legalization proposals are potentially “gateway” proposals for ones about other drugs?
One initiative that’s very much of this era is California’s Prop 22. It’s also far and away the nation’s most expensive ballot campaign this year. What is it, and why has it attracted such attention?
Prop 22 is really the first smartphone app-related measure we’ve seen. In 2019, California’s legislature passed Assembly Bill 5, which required drivers for app-based rideshare and delivery companies — like Uber and Lyft — to be classified as employees of those companies instead of independent contractors. This proposal would do the opposite: It would exempt those drivers from the provisions of that law and establish a few other labor laws specific only to those drivers — a net-earnings floor, a 12-hour limit on the amount of time they can work in a 24-hour period, and so on.
You mentioned the cost of this campaign — around $200 million has been spent on it. This is a citizen initiative that really defies what we think of as the “citizen” part, because we see such huge financial support from companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash. It’s not uncommon for businesses to support ballot measures; we know that happens. But here, we’re seeing that translate into really massive spending. It’s hard to know how individual people will feel when there’s so much corporate money involved.
Let’s turn to another big state: Florida. They’re considering instituting a “jungle primary” like the system used in California?
Yes. We don’t really use the term “jungle” primary at NCSL, but it would be an open, top-two primary. Florida currently has a closed primary system. That means that as a voter, you have to be affiliated with a party in order to vote in its primary.
This measure would make two really big changes. First, it would allow anyone to vote in the primary — you wouldn’t need to be affiliated with a particular party to do so. Second, it would mean that the top two vote-getters from that primary would advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. So, there could be a situation where the general election is between two Republicans or two Democrats.
There are a variety of tax proposals on the ballot — Illinois, Colorado and California are a couple of the big ones. What can you tell us about those?
I can start with one little theme: there are two proposals on income taxes, one in Colorado, which would reduce them, and one in Illinois, which would get rid of their flat rate and allow the state legislature to enact a graduated income tax. So we have taxes potentially going up in Illinois and down in Colorado — which has interesting implications for those states’ budgets.
In Colorado, our tax rate is 4.63 percent. If this measure passes, it would go down to 4.55 percent. The way that translates to an individual person’s income is essentially this: If your taxable income is $25,000, you’d get a $20 tax cut. If your taxable income is $50,000, you’d save $40. That’s not nothing, but it may come at a high cost to the state: It would amount to around a 1.2 percent cut in general-fund revenue for Colorado in fiscal year 2022.
The other big tax proposal is Prop 15 in California, and that relates to a really important ballot measure they passed in 1978: Prop 13, which established the tax-assessment formula for the whole state. Prop 15 would require all commercial and industrial real estate properties be assessed at their full market value instead of their purchase price. That would be a pretty big change and would generate additional revenue slated to go to schools and local governments.
These are all getting extra attention because of all the state government cuts happening in the wake of the pandemic. Voters tend not to vote for tax increases in ballot proposals, and it will be interesting to see how they feel about the prospect of tax increases when their own pocketbooks are maybe emptier than in the past — and when state and local governments are also running on empty.
Since the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Americans across the country have participated in demonstrations for racial justice. And now we have a couple different proposals that are, broadly speaking, related to reckoning with the history of racism in America. Those are on the ballot in Rhode Island and Mississippi. First, Rhode Island’s has to do with the actual name of the state?
Yeah. When I tell people that Rhode Island is going to change its name, they think it’s not going to be called Rhode Island anymore. But actually, the state’s official name is the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” This year, there’s a legislatively referred measure that would remove “and Providence Plantations” from the state’s name.
And in Mississippi?
This has gotten a lot more attention. Earlier this year, in light of the racial justice movement, a large portion of the Mississippi state legislature decided to change the state’s flag by removing the Civil War-era Confederate battle emblem on their current flag.
Since then, Mississippi has gone through a process to look at possible flag designs. They chose one — it has a big magnolia flower on it — and are submitting that design to voters for approval. If the voters approve it, there will be new flag up at the statehouse. If they don’t, the legislature has to go back to the drawing board and propose something else, since they are committed to getting rid of the Confederate emblem.
You started by mentioning the fact that ballot initiatives are really an outgrowth of the Progressive Era. But over the last several decades, conservatives have had a lot of success in using ballot measures to drive their agenda and energize their voters. We saw this in the 1970s and 80s, with small-government conservatives using ballot proposals to limit taxes. We saw this in the late 90s and 2000s, with social conservatives supporting a wave of proposals to curtail the rights of LGBT Americans.
But over the last decade or so, we’ve seen liberals use ballot measures in a similar way on issues including marijuana reform, criminal justice and ranked-choice voting. And that really seems to be the case this year, when paid family leave and legalized mushrooms are up for votes. Is there any big-picture conclusion we can draw from that?
In general, I think it reflects which parties control the legislative process in individual states. Whichever party is in power in the state legislature is probably going to be able to pass the issues that they want to. The minority party’s issues are maybe not getting the floor time or even advancing out of committee. Because of that, those types of issues are more likely to end up as citizen initiatives in the states that allow it. It can often be a workaround for the issues the minority party cares about.
It’s weird, though, because generally, lawmakers at the state level don’t like the citizen initiative process, regardless of party. They’ll like specific measures if they align with their own views, but they don’t like the process, and it’s sometimes hard to square that.