With the presidential election in full swing, it's easy to forget that there are tons of other important things voters will be deciding on next week. All across the country, people will be voting on hundreds of ballot measures. Some are terrible. Some are confusing. But they're the closest most voters will get to directly affecting public policy.
Not every voter lives in a state with ballot measures this year, but here are some of the more interesting ones coming up for those who do.
There are more than 15 measures across 13 states concerning criminal justice in some way. At least four of them seem aimed at softening the harshest aspects of the justice system.
California has two competing and contradictory measures about the death penalty on the ballot. Proposition 62 would repeal the death penalty completely, replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Proposition 66 would speed up the death penalty process as an answer to the complaint that prisoners languish on Death Row for too long.
California's Proposition 57 would offer more opportunities for those convicted of nonviolent crimes to receive parole or time off for good behavior. It would also put judges in charge of determining whether or not a juvenile criminal defendant would be tried as an adult.
Oklahoma has a pair of measures going before voters on this subject, too. State Question 780 reclassifies simple drug possession and some property crimes as misdemeanors, while State Question 781 offers more funding for rehabilitation, substance abuse, and mental health programs.
Colorado's Amendment T is a bit different—it's what the Denver Post calls "an important though largely symbolic gesture." The Colorado Constitution has the same language in it as the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Both forbid slavery, but allow an exception for prisoners: "There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."
If passed, Amendment T would remove everything after the word "servitude." The Post points out that "many other state constitutions have no language referring to slavery and still have prison work and community service programs," so it wouldn't necessarily change much from day to day.
This is a big year for proponents of marijuana decriminalization, with measures concerning the drug on the ballot in nine states. Florida, Arkansas, Montana and North Dakota voters will all consider measures that allow physician-prescribed medical marijuana, while Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and—most importantly—California are all looking at general legalization and regulation to varying degrees.
If all five of those states passed legalization measures, they would bring the number of states where weed is legal to nine—a sizable minority of the country's population.
With all the concern over elections this year, it's not too surprising that there are 11 electoral reform measures facing voters across the country—although "reform" is in the eye of the beholder.
Many of these measures are aimed at making voting easier for independents. Maine's Question 5 would make it the first state to have ranked-choice voting in statewide elections. (Briefly: instead of just choosing one candidate, people could rank their top choices. After the votes are tallied, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and everyone who voted for him or her has their second place choice used instead. This continues until there are two candidates left and a clear winner. It means that people can feel free to cast a vote of conscience and not worry that their protest votes will, say, elect Donald Trump.)
Meanwhile, Colorado has three different measures on elections, including provisions to switch from a caucus system to primaries and to allow unaffiliated voters the opportunity to vote in them. South Dakota's Amendment V is going even further to embrace independent voters, proposing to institute nonpartisan elections for all offices short of president or vice president.
But it's not all good news. A Missouri measure, Constitutional Amendment 6, would give its legislature the power to require photo ID at elections. And as we've seen in other states, this innocuous sounding idea is more often used to suppress the votes of people of color.
The ongoing effort to establish a living wage across America continues with Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington state all putting measures on the ballot to raise the minimum wage. Those changes would be:
- Maine: $12 an hour by 2020
- Washington: $13.50 by 2020
- Colorado: $12 by 2020
- Arizona: $12 by 2020 plus five days of sick leave.
Believe it or not, though, there's actually one state with a ballot measure trying to lower the minimum wage. South Dakota's Referred Law 20 would let employers pay workers under the age of 18 as low as $7.50 an hour—just over a dollar under what they currently make. Naturally, the people it would affect cannot vote.
Guns and Gun Control
People in at four states will be deciding whether to approve new gun-related measures. Washington's Initiative 1491 would allow a judge to temporarily issue "extreme-risk protection orders" blocking people from access to guns if they've been deemed a threat to themselves or others. Maine's Question 3 and Nevada's Question 1 would institute a system of background checks on private gun sales. And California's Proposition 63 would, among other things, require background checks for anyone purchasing ammunition, let alone a weapon.
And Some Other Stuff
As is always the case, there are some laws on the ballot that don't necessarily represent a trend, but still manage to stand out.
All of California's voters will be weighing in on whether male actors in pornographic films will be required to wear condoms.
Indiana and Kansas voters are deciding whether to write the right to fish and hunt into their constitutions, while Oklahoma voters could do the same with the right to farm. If this keeps up, state constitutions might get a bit long.
A ballot measure in Alabama isn't adding anything to its constitution but is re-writing a portion of it to sound less old-timey, changing this:
The powers of the government of the State of Alabama shall be divided into three distinct departments, each of which shall be confided to a separate body of magistracy, to wit: Those which are legislative, to one; those which are executive, to another; and those which are judicial, to another
… to this:
(a) The powers of the government of the State of Alabama are legislative, executive, and judicial. (b) The government of the State of Alabama shall be divided into three distinct branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. (c) To the end that the government of the State of Alabama may be a government of laws and not of individuals, and except as expressly directed or permitted in this constitution, the legislative branch may not exercise the executive or judicial power, the executive branch may not exercise the legislative or judicial power, and the judicial branch may not exercise the legislative or executive power
I think I need to stop this article now, lest you get heart palpitations from the excitement.