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On the Ballot: Marijuana, Gay Marriage

“The presidential election gets most of the attention, but it’s going to be a very interesting year at state level, with voters potentially passing a host of far-reaching new laws,” says John Matsusaka of USC’s Initiative & Referendum Institute. Pot legalization is a hot topic this year, as are same-sex marriage, health care, tax increases and public employee unions.

Marijuana legalization is one of the hottest topics on the November 6 ballot this year, with six states voting on the issue, according to a new Ballotwatch Report released by USC’s Initiative & Referendum Institute.

Voters in 34 states will decide the fate of 159 ballot propositions, addressing issues including same-sex marriage, health care, tax increases, public employee unions, and gambling.

“The presidential election gets most of the attention, but it’s going to be a very interesting year at state level, with voters potentially passing a host of far-reaching new laws,” says John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute.

The 159 total propositions this election year match the number in 2010, and represent a slight increase from the 153 in 2008, Matsusaka notes. Factoring in propositions decided in elections before November, voters will decide 171 propositions during the course of 2012, down from 183 in 2010, 174 in 2008, and 225 in 2006.

“In a typical year, the most visible and controversial propositions are initiatives and referendums, issues that are placed on the ballot by citizen petition,” Matsusaka says. “Overall, initiative activity seems to have cooled off from its feverish pace in the 1990s.”

For 2012, the number of initiatives is 41, slightly down from 42 in 2010; it represents the smallest number of initiatives since 1984, when there were also 41 initiatives.

Multi-State Issues

Every year, several issues appear on the ballots of multiple states. This may happen as a result of a coordinated campaign by an interest group or, more often, as individual states respond to a common event, such as a court ruling. Multi-state issues can take on life and spread across the country if they meet with voter approval initially, and reveal unexpected popular support for an issue. For this reason, multi-state issues are worth watching as possible leading indicators of national trends.


Marijuana-related measures are on the ballot in six states. The most far-reaching propositions are citizen proposals that would legalize recreational use of cannabis: Colorado’s Amendment 64, Oregon’s Measure 80, and Washington’s I-502. Although federal law prohibits possession of marijuana, advocates of legalization believe that public opinion may be shifting in their favor. In 2008, Massachusetts voters approved Question 2, which decriminalized small amounts of the drug, making possession of less than one ounce subject only to a $100 fine. In 2010, California voters narrowly rejected (47-53) Proposition 19, which would have legalized personal use. The Colorado and Washington initiatives are leading in early polls, by 47-38 and 55-32, respectively, and could provide a bellwether victory for legalization.

Beginning in the 1990s, legalization advocates pursued a strategy of promoting laws that allowed medical use of marijuana. Currently, 17 states permit medical marijuana, most of them adopting their laws through the initiative process. This year, three more states will be voting on medical marijuana. Perhaps the most interesting state to watch is Arkansas, which would be the first Southern state to approve medical marijuana if the initiative is approved. Question 3 in Massachusetts gives voters the option to permit medical use of marijuana, and IR-124 in Montana asks voters to repeal recent action by the legislature (SB 423) that cut back significant parts of the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana law from 2004.


Same-sex marriage has been a prominent issue on ballot propositions for almost a decade. Despite what appears to be some movement in public opinion in favor of gay marriage and a growing number of states that permit gay marriage, all state-level victories for same-sex marriage have come from courts or legislatures; voters have consistently voted to restrict marriage to one man and one woman when given the choice, with 30 of 31 measures banning gay marriage having passed to date.

This year, five states have marriage-related propositions on the ballot. Maine’s Question 1 and Maryland’s Question 6, both placed on the ballot by citizen petition, ask voters to repeal laws previously approved by voters that ban same-sex marriage. Washington’s R-74, also placed on the ballot by petition, asks voters to repeal a new law from the legislature that legalizes same-sex marriage.

One interesting thing to watch for this year is whether gay marriage advocates can achieve their first affirmative endorsement from the electorate directly in Maine, Maryland or Washington. Minnesota voters will decide whether to adopt a constitutional amendment banning same sex-marriage; in May, North Carolina voters approved such a ban.

Health Care

President Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act, remains a source of controversy in the states. Four states (Arizona, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma) have approved propositions declaring that no individual or business shall be compelled to participate in a health care system, in what appears to be a partly symbolic judgment on the merits of Obamacare; while Colorado voters rejected a similar proposal. This year, Alabama, Florida, Montana and Wyoming voters will have the opportunity to express their views. These states are generally seen as moderate to conservative, but the election returns on these propositions will provide some insight into how the health care reform plan is being viewed and what the political landscape looks like for further health care reform.


Taxes remain the most prevalent issue for ballot propositions this year, as is the case in almost every election year. Voters are facing 31 tax-related measures, most of which make small changes to the tax code, such as providing property tax exemptions to spouses of veterans who died in combat.

The most visible and controversial tax measures propose revenue increases. These measures will give a temperature reading about whether voters are warming toward taxes, after several years of extreme hostility. Two major tax initiatives will be decided in California. Proposition 30, sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown, increases the income tax on earnings over $250,000 and increases the sales tax by 0.25 percent, for seven and four years, respectively. The proposition is supported by public employee unions and opposed by taxpayer groups; most business groups are remaining on the sideline in this campaign. Gov. Brown has argued that draconian cuts in state spending will be required if the measure isn’t approved. Proposition 38, sponsored by lawyer and education activist Molly Munger, raises income taxes across the board and for 12 years, and dedicates 60 percent of revenue to education. Proposition 38 is opposed by Gov. Brown’s coalition, largely out of fear that it may confuse voters and lead to the defeat of both tax measures. A minor controversy broke out during the summer when the legislature changed state law to list Gov. Brown’s proposition before all others on the ballot, breaking with standard practice that lists them in the order signatures are submitted. Proposition 30’s backers believe that listing it first on the ballot increases its chance of passage, although there does not appear to be any evidence in support of this belief.

Arizona’s Proposition 204 makes permanent a temporary sales tax increase from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent that is due to expire in 2013, and mandates annual increases in state education spending. Similarly, South Dakota’s Initiated Measure 15 increases the state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, with revenue dedicated to education and health care. In two separate measures, Arkansas voters will decide whether to raise the gas tax and the sales tax, in both cases to pay for interest on proposed bond issues related to transportation projects.

Missouri’s Proposition B, an initiative statute, proposes to increase tobacco taxes by $1 per pack, with revenue dedicated to health education. In June, California voters rejected Proposition 29, which also would have increased tobacco taxes by $1 per pack, with revenue dedicated to cancer research. The failure of Proposition 29 appears to have been due to its locking in spending on a particular program (cancer research), rather than to citizen aversion to higher tobacco taxes.

To download the full Ballotwatch Report, including a state-by-state analysis of upcoming ballot measures, click here.

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On the Ballot: Marijuana, Gay Marriage

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