Top 10 Potentially Game-Changing State Ballot Issues

Top 10, ballot measures
Reading Time: 6 minutes

—ANALYSIS—

The US presidential race may be grabbing most of the attention, but voters will also render verdicts on many state ballot measures. Some are serious — family leave, minimum wage, health care, police reform, and other social justice issues. Others, like whether to legalize cannabis, might rank a bit lower on the importance scale.

From weed to wages, and much more, here is a list of the most significant statewide ballot measures to be decided November 3, plus a few honorable mentions. A shout-out to Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center for her suggestions. 

  1. Paid Family and Medical Leave: With efforts to require paid family leave for private employees stuck in Congress, advocates in Colorado decided to take matters into their own hands. Proposition 118 would establish a state-run, paid family and medical leave program, allowing Coloradans up to 12 weeks of paid leave to be with a newborn or to care for themselves or a family member who is seriously ill. 

The Democratic party has endorsed national legislation, and in December of last year President Trump signed into law family leave for federal employees. But mandating paid family leave nationwide is sure to face fierce resistance from the business community even if Democrats win the presidency, House, and Senate. A win in Colorado, potentially the 9th state to approve such a plan, would add momentum to efforts to pass a national law. 

“That is part of a message that is happening across the country of the support people want and need right now around supporting your families and being able to take the leave and having the economic opportunities [to do] that in the middle of a pandemic,” said Figueredo. 

  1. Sleight of Hand with Job Classifications: Back in 2018, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation cracking down on employers who deliberately misclassified full-time employees as independent contractors, denying them many protections and benefits. The legislation was aimed at ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft. Those companies, which use millions of nonemployee drivers, and other private companies have ponied up a record-breaking $200 million in support of California’s Proposition 22, which would effectively repeal the 2018 legislation.

Passage of Proposition 22 would almost certainly slam the brakes on the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019 (PRO), a proposed federal law closely modeled on California’s that would crack down on job misclassification. The PRO Act passed the House of Representatives in the last session and is supported by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, but would likely be doomed if Proposition 22 passes in California.

Repealing the California law, “removing key protections around sex and race-based discrimination, around paid leave, around benefits … would essentially create a subclass of workers without those protections,” said Figueredo. ”If it passed, it could be duplicated in other states.”

  1. $15-an-Hour Minimum Wage: Florida voters will vote on Amendment 2, to raise the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 an hour by 2026. As a constitutional amendment, it needs 60 percent of the vote to pass. In the last Congress, the House passed a federal $15-an-hour minimum wage only to see it die in the Senate. If Amendment 2 passes in Florida and Democrats take charge nationally, that could trigger a perfect storm leading to the passage of a national $15-an-hour minimum wage. 
  1. Reproductive Rights: Ballot measures in two states would severely restrict a woman’s right to an abortion. Colorado’s Proposition 115 would make abortion illegal after 22 weeks, except in cases where the physician believes the woman’s life is in danger. Louisiana’s Amendment 1 goes even further. It would add language to the Louisiana constitution outlawing abortions without any exceptions. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and Louisiana passes Amendment 1, abortion would be illegal in the state in all circumstances. 
  1. Election Reform: Both Massachusetts and Alaska have state ballot initiatives to establish ranked-choice voting (RCV).  

Under the present system in most states, voters can choose only one candidate in a primary or general election. With RCV, voters could “rank” their voting choices in order of preference: first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on, based on the number of candidates. When all the first-place votes are tallied, if any candidate wins at least half the total vote, that candidate is declared the winner. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the first-place votes, then votes for the lowest-polling candidate are reassigned to the second-choice candidate of those voters. 

If a candidate still lacks a majority, the process is repeated with the votes of the second-lowest polling candidate transferred to the next choices of those voters. This continues until one candidate achieves a majority of votes. 

RCV could greatly strengthen third parties, because by ranking their votes, voters would no longer have to worry about a third-party vote spoiling the chances of more mainstream candidates. If voters approve the Massachusetts and Alaska initiatives on Tuesday, it would create momentum for more states and localities to adopt RCV. 

  1. School Funding: Proposition 15 in California would amend the state constitution to require commercial and industrial properties (except those zoned for commercial agriculture) to be taxed based on their market value, not the purchase price. This would effectively raise taxes on virtually all businesses that own real estate, with 40 percent of the extra tax revenue earmarked for school districts and community colleges.

Arizona’s Proposition 208 would increase the state income tax by an additional 3.5 percent for people earning more than $250,000. The current income tax rate base is 4.5 percent. The money raised would be earmarked for teacher and classroom support staff salaries, teacher mentoring and retention programs, and career and technical education programs. It would also fund the Arizona Teachers Academy, a program to help pay tuition and fees for students in state universities or community colleges who want to become teachers. 

  1. Gerrymandering: In 2018, Missouri voters passed a tough redistricting reform measure, changing how Missouri state legislative districts are redrawn after every national census. It created a less partisan process, using more objective criteria. This year, Amendment 3 would undercut the 2018 reform. It would undo the requirement for voting districts to be drawn by an independent state demographer instead of politicians, and would make it more difficult for voters to challenge the results.

“The state Legislature two years later has put forth a ballot measure to undermine essentially the will of the people,” said Figueredo. 

(A fun historical note: The word “gerrymander” comes from Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor who in 1812 signed a bill creating an awkwardly shaped state Senate district. Illustrator Elkanah Tisdale drew a picture map portraying the redrawn district as a monster, with claws and a snake-like head on its long neck. The resulting image resembled a salamander … and so the word gerrymander was born.) 

  1. Criminal Justice Reform: In the wake of the national outcry over George Floyd’s death and other fatal police shootings, several ambitious initiatives on state ballots support criminal justice reform. If Oklahoma’s Proposition 805 passes, people convicted of nonviolent crimes could be sentenced up to the maximum allowable prison term for the current crime but would not receive additional time in prison because of prior convictions.

California’s Proposition 25 would replace cash bail with a risk assessment system for criminal suspects awaiting trial. Other initiatives in several large cities would “defund” some police activities, remove city charter language mandating a minimum number of police officers, create a police oversight board, and require footage from police body cameras be made public. 

  1. The War on Drugs: If Measure 110 is approved, Oregon would become the first state to decriminalize all controlled substances. Instead, individuals caught with unauthorized drugs could be fined $100, with the option to have the penalty waived if they agreed to a health assessment by an addiction recovery center. The measure also would redirect a portion of existing cannabis tax revenues to finance treatment for addicts, as well as harm reduction measures such as distributing sterile syringes and naloxone hydrochloride, a drug that can treat opioid overdoses.
  1. Stem Cell Research: California’s Proposition 14 supports issuing $5.5 billion in general obligation bonds for the state’s stem cell research agency. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine was first created in 2004 by voters who approved $3 billion in bonds to fund it. However, supporters say the money is running out, and more funding is needed to advance stem cell treatments for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. 

Honorable Mentions

  • Residents of Oregon’s Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, are voting on Measure 26-214, which would create tuition-free, full-day, universal preschools open to all three- and four-year-olds. The program would be funded through a progressive income tax and would pay preschool teachers and assistants a living wage.
  • New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana will consider measures to legalize cannabis for all adults 21 and older. Mississippi will vote on whether to legalize medical marijuana.

On Election Night and beyond, the presidential showdown and other high-profile national and state races may create the most headlines. But the fine print in state ballot measures could be almost as important in the long run on issues affecting the daily lives of many Americans. 

For more of WhoWhatWhy’s work on Protecting Our Vote, see our Student Voter Guide and our series America Decides 2020. You can also find out the darker secrets behind our voting systems in our recently published e-book Is This Any Way to Vote?: Vulnerable Voting Machines and the Mysterious Industry Behind Them by Celeste Katz Marston and Gabriella Novello, available on Amazon now.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from bethannigrams / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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