Ballot measures 2012: Pot, gambling, and racist language, oh my!

November 6, 2012

This Election Day, voters across the country also are weighing in on a hodgepodge of statewide ballot measures. Some are strictly symbolic—often proposed to make a political statement or gin up turnout—while others would effect major policy changes at the state level. Here's a rundown of the major statewide ballot measures for 2012.


(Continental / AFP/Getty Images)

Remove Racist Language: Alabama is voting on an amendment that would remove references to segregation in the state constitution, which still states that "separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children." The amendment has drawn surprising opposition* from Democrats and other group who argue that the proposal contains a "poison pill" that would strike the constitution's mandate for public schools, replacing it with "nothing in this constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense." Alabama voters struck down a similar amendment in 2004, as conservative activists argued that it would result in legally required education spending increases. 

Legalize Marijuana: Colorado, Oregon and Washington state will vote on whether to legalize marijuana within their states. This is a far step beyond decriminalization: All three would make marijuana a legal commodity with sale and production regulated by the state.Proponents of marijuana legalization propositions say that it would bring more revenue to the state government, as marijuana would become taxable. Opponents contend that it could increase marijuana usage and potential harms. Academics say that it could have a national effect: If one state legalizes marijuana, making production easier, it could lead to drops in prices across the country.

Restrict Abortion: States passed a wave of abortion restrictions in the past legislative session. Only two, however, have ballot initiatives this year related to abortion access. In Florida, Amendment Six would prohibit public funding from paying for abortions. This could have the biggest impact on the future of the state's Medicaid program. In 17 states, the entitlement pays for elective abortions. The effect would not, however, be immediate: Florida is not among those 17 states.

A personhood amendment in Oklahoma, that would have asked voters to decide whether life begins at conception, was rejected by the Supreme Court, which declared the proposal "clearly unconstitutional."

Push Back against Obamacare: Wyoming, Florida, Alabama, and Montana all have ballot measures that would prohibit any individual or employer from being forced to participate in a health-care system and/or purchase health insurance. It's an attack on Obamacare, but it's an entirely symbolic one: Federal law pre-empts state law, so the measure wouldn't do anything to change the status quo. 

A ballot initiative in Missouri would prohibit the state from setting up a health insurance exchange, the new marketplace required by the health care law. The proposition comes in the midst of a heated fight between Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who has hoped to use federal funds to establish an exchange, and a Republican legislature who opposes the idea. If this passes, it wouldn't necessarily block Obamacare. It would just mean that, in the state of Missouri, the federal government would come into set up a marketplace instead.

Raise Taxes: State budgets are still strapped for cash, prompting ballot measures that would raise taxes: South Dakota's Measure 15 would raise sales taxes to fund Medicaid and education, for instance, while California's Prop 30 would increase sales taxes by 0.25 percent and income taxes on those making more than $250,000 to fund schools. California's Prop 38 would hike income taxes across the board.

Lower taxes: Other states are proposing to carve out new tax exemptions or restrictions. Florida's Amendment 4 would put new caps on property taxes and Amendment 3 would cap state revenue, while a New Hampshire measure would amend the state constitution to bar income taxes. (The state currently has no sales or income taxes, except on investment income, but the amendment would make future changes more difficult, and prevent a return of the investment tax should it ever get repealed.)

Gay Marriage: In Minnesota, there's a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that would ban gay marriage. In Washington state, Maine and Maryland, there are ballot measures that would allow gay marriage. (In Maine, the measure would repeal the state's 2009 ban on gay marriage.)

Strengthen Labor Unions: Michigan is voting on an constitutional amendment that would make collective bargaining a right for both public and private-sector employees, overriding any future "right to work" laws that would prohibit the ability to negotiate collective bargaining contracts. 

Expand Gambling: Maryland voters will be deciding whether to expand gambling in the state. The ballot measure has been at the heart of a local media blitz: Supporters say it would prevent Maryland from losing money to neighboring states and increase revenue, while opponents say that politicians will simply use that revenue to fill in budget gaps. As our colleague Dylan points out, studies show that casinos generate jobs, but also tend to increase crime, bankruptcy and mental illness in local communities.

Label Genetically Modified Food: California's Prop 37 would require certain genetically modified foods to be labeled in grocery stores, which has pitted consumer watchdogs and organic food companies against corporate food giants and bio tech, who've spent more than $44 million to fight the proposition. My colleague Brad has the rundown of the debate and the arguments for and against GMOs. 

*Post has been updated to include the reasons this Alabama amendment has drawn opposition from surprising quarters.

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Dylan Matthews · November 6, 2012