Fear and Loathing on State Ballots
Twenty years ago, American journalist Hunter S. Thompson remarked, “Democracy as a system has evolved into something that Thomas Jefferson didn’t anticipate.” An inarguably prescient observation, but one made well before the recent furor over Russian meddling in American elections. Instead, Thompson very well may have been remarking on the ever-growing state and local ballot initiatives directly decided on by voters in virtually every election, as opposed to the rather indirect democratic model of government our founders originally envisioned, under which Americans would vote to allow their smartest neighbors to elect American leaders.
Some of the measures throughout history have been a bit interesting.
In 1996, San Francisco voters considered Proposition BB, which was placed on the ballot at the request of a police officer who wanted to walk his beat … with a ventriloquist’s dummy on his arm. Voters narrowly approved the measure. Ten years later, voters in Arizona were asked whether the state should create a program that, each election year, would award one voter $1 million for casting a ballot. Though it might have resulted in higher turnout in future elections, voters rejected the measure 66 percent to 33 percent. And, lest you think the trade war started with the Trump administration, in 1998, California voters approved a ballot measure that prohibited exporting horses for slaughter resulting in human consumption. (About one percent of California horses had been slaughtered for meat consumption annually in the 1990s, mostly for export to the European Union and Japan.)
State ballot initiatives have also had significant social consequences.
In 1994, for example, California’s Republican Gov. Pete Wilson campaigned forcefully for Proposition 187, which kept undocumented immigrants from accessing state services. Voters approved the measure (and two years later Congress approved a welfare reform bill that prohibited most immigrants from receiving federal benefits), but the GOP suffered electorally in the state in the years after Prop 187, and analysts largely blame this initiative.
And don’t look now, but even amidst all the noise about the mid-term elections and control of Congress, The Atlantic has called 2018 “The Year of the Ballot Initiative.”
In Florida, voters will decide the fate of Amendment 5, which would require that two-thirds of legislators approve a tax increase for it to become law. Small government conservatives have supported similar legislation in the U.S. House and Senate over the last two decades.
Idaho residents will vote on whether to allow the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion, which Republican state lawmakers have staunchly opposed, to move forward. If the measure is successful, the state will extend Medicaid eligibility to individuals under the age of 65 whose income is 133 percent of the federal poverty level or below and who are not eligible for other state insurance coverage. Utah voters will consider a similar initiative, and also will vote on whether to allow marijuana use for medical purposes.
In Oregon, voters will consider whether to ban taxes on groceries. South Dakotans will vote on increasing the state’s cigarette tax by $1 per pack. And Utah voters will decide whether to increase the state’s gas tax by ten cents per gallon to pay for infrastructure improvements. (Proponents argue the measure will free up money for education.) In North Carolina, voters actually will get to consider whether to reduce their own taxes. A vote in favor of the North Carolina Income Tax Cap Amendment would lower the maximum allowable state income tax rate from 10 to seven percent.
Other measures already have failed—but not at the hands of voters. On July 18, the California Supreme Court unanimously agreed to pull Proposition 9 from November’s ballot. The judges said they removed Prop 9 because “the potential harm in permitting the measure to remain on the ballot outweighs the potential harm in delaying the proposition to a future election.” Prop 9 would have granted voters the right to decide whether to split California into three states: Northern California, Southern California, and – simply – California. The California Supreme Court decision came just weeks after a push for a state data privacy ballot initiative was thwarted by enactment of legislation in Sacramento.
As of July 25, 126 ballot initiatives have been approved for consideration this November, and efforts are still underway to advance more. Colorado residents have until Aug. 6 to decide whether to sign petitions to allow initiatives to ban the sale of smartphones to children under the age of 13, require that healthcare providers supply prices lists for services offered, and ensure local and state police help enforce federal immigration law.
With gridlock in Washington, these measures could ultimately have more direct impact on Americans daily lives’ than anything that happens on Capitol Hill.
Vote wisely. Even if it’s for a ventriloquist’s dummy.