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States take control: Abortion, marijuana and voting rights on ballot in midterms

Political candidates asking for citizens’ votes or bashing their opponent are not the only political messages that voters in many states are seeing right now. Ads for or against constitutional amendments and propositions on the ballot are flooding airwaves and mailboxes in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election.

In some states, ballot initiatives put lawmaking directly in the hands of the voters. One of the most prevalent issues in several states this year is abortion. After the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, some states are considering initiatives to expand legal abortion, while others are voting on measures to restrict or outlaw it.

One cause that has advanced mainly through ballot initiatives in recent years is marijuana legalization. Efforts to legalize pot for recreational use are on the ballot in five states this year.

In addition to directly changing a specific law, some experts say that ballot initiatives may influence the shape of the electorate and also help one party.

Voters behind the red curtains of two voting booths, one wearing a long navy skirt printed with stars, with an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the background.
Election Day at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, on Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) (AP)

“It is true that parties and/or political candidates may use ballot initiatives strategically to try to drive voter turnout,” John Hudak, senior fellow in governance studies at the nonpartisan public policy organization the Brookings Institution, told Yahoo News. For example, some analysts argued that the large number of anti-gay marriage initiatives in 2004 helped increase turnout among conservative voters, benefiting Republicans. This year, Democrats may hope that initiatives to protect abortion rights may bring liberal voters to the polls.

“We saw those efforts are anti-marriage equality initiatives in 2004, and we are seeing it around abortion-related initiatives this year. In other situations, ballot initiative authors will strategically time initiatives when they expect voter turnout to be higher. That is why you often see cannabis-related ballot initiatives being put on the ballot in even-numbered years, when turnout is higher for midterm or presidential elections.”

On Tuesday, voters in 37 states will decide on 132 statewide ballot measures, according to Ballotpedia.com.

Abortion

Five states will take on the issue of abortion in the midterms. In California, where abortion is most likely to be safe, Proposition 1 would add abortion rights to the state constitution. The same is true for Michigan’s Proposal 3 and Vermont’s Proposal 5.

In Kentucky, Amendment 2 presents the opposite case, asking voters to approve the measure that says “that nothing in the state constitution creates a right to abortion or requires government funding for abortion.”

Demonstrators gather in support of an abortion ban, one holding a sign that says: Vote Pro Life, Yes on 2.
A rally encouraging voters to vote yes on Amendment 2, which would add a permanent abortion ban to Kentucky's state constitution, on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Oct. 1. (Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (AFP via Getty Images)

Montana’s legislative referendum would require health care providers to try to save any infant born alive, including after attempted abortions, or face fines or jail time.

In Michigan, $57 million has been spent in total, from both sides, on the abortion initiative, according to Politico. That’s more money than the races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state combined, and an unusually large amount of money for a ballot initiative.

Citizens to Support MI Women and Children, the campaign opposing the amendment, has raised close to $17 million, mostly from the Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups.

In California, churches are also at the forefront of opposition to abortion rights and the proposition.

“It is hard to say how much money goes into ballot initiatives. In some states, millions or tens of millions will pour into competitive ballot initiatives, especially those involving hot-button issues nationally or locally,” Hudak said.

“In other places and on other issues, very light spending happens on ballot initiatives," he added. "Typically, in states with high barriers to get something on a ballot, they require significant spending and professionalization up front that can then carry over to higher amounts of fundraising and spending later.”

Marijuana

Like abortion, recreational marijuana will go before voters on midterm ballots in five states.

They will decide whether marijuana can be used legally for recreational use by adults. Most are right-leaning states showing the growing acceptance and tolerance of it. Voters in Maryland (Question 4), Missouri (Amendment 3), North Dakota (Statutory Measure 2), South Dakota (Initiated Measure 27) and Arkansas (Issue 4) will consider recreational marijuana use, while the federal government has still not taken that step.

Already, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, while 37 states have legalized medicinal marijuana.

A bank of lush green leaves in a palmiform shape.
Cannabis sattiva plants. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Voter rights

Six states are taking up amendments related to voting policies. Nebraska voters will decide on a ballot measure to require voters to show government-issued photo identification. Arizona Proposition 309 would require mail-in ballots to include dates of birth and voter identification numbers on mail-in ballots, as well as eliminating any alternatives to showing photo ID at the polling booth.

Voters in Ohio (Issue 2) are deciding this year whether to eliminate language from the constitution that could allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. The initiatives would amend the law to specify citizens of the United States. Louisiana (Amendment 1) has a similar measure going before voters on Dec. 10.

A left-handed voter fills out a ballot marked: November 8, 2022, General Election.
A voter fills out a ballot on Oct. 24, ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms in Los Angeles. (Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images) (CHRIS DELMAS via Getty Images)

In Nevada, Question 3 would establish “open top-five primaries and ranked-choice voting for general elections, which would apply to congressional, gubernatorial, state executive official, and state legislative elections.”

Connecticut (Question 1) will address a constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to pass a law for in-person early voting.

Meanwhile, a “yes” vote on the proposed constitutional amendment in Michigan would expand voting rights, requiring nine days of early voting availability and establishing that people have a right to vote without "harassing, threatening, or intimidating conduct."

Guns

In a year of deadly mass shootings, Iowa and Oregon are taking up initiatives related to regulation of firearms.

Iowa’s Amendment 1, the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, would change the constitution to say “any and all restrictions” on gun ownership will be “subject to strict scrutiny” by a court.

In Oregon, the changes trend in the opposite direction. Initiative 17, or the Reduction of Gun Violence Act, would require “a background check, firearm training and a permit to purchase a firearm. Criminalizes manufacturing, selling or acquiring magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. Restricts the use of such magazines currently owned.”

Automatic firearms set out on a counter for sale, with cards giving their specifications.
Guns for sale in the Roseburg Gun Shop in Roseburg, Ore., on Oct. 3, 2015. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson) (REUTERS)

With all the ballot measures, voters are encouraged to read up and fully understand what they are approving or disapproving before checking their choice.

“​Unfortunately, in some states and on some initiatives, that language is purposefully confusing, so that voters do not know exactly what they are voting on, or which direction 'yes' or 'no' actually goes," Hudak said.

“In some states, there are more rigorous protections against confusing ballot language, but those protections vary greatly. Voters can take the time to read the full initiative and not simply the summary, but two problems arise there: 1) Some initiatives are dozens or hundreds of pages long and many voters do not have the time to read through them all (especially when there are numerous initiatives on the same ballot, and: 2) Even when reading the full initiative, the language can still be technical, legalistic, and/or bureaucratic.”