Sex, Drugs, and Union Rolls: 2012 Ballot Initiatives Mark the Real Battles

There's more to the political season than analyzing every utterance by Obama and Romney.


Voters in 38 states will have their say (if they have the fortitude to make it all the way down the ballot) on 176 initiatives on Nov. 6. These are just the state-level initiatives. There are hundreds upon hundreds of municipal measures as well—California alone has 230 municipal proposals to generate revenue through bonds or tax increases.

Though there are close to 200 state initiatives, there are a handful of categories that may be of particular interest to libertarian-leaning voters, from marijuana legalization to same-sex marriage recognition, to union regulations. So we picked out a few particular areas with ballot initiatives that are worth keeping an eye on. And if you don't have the patience to track it all, that's okay: Reason 24/7's crew will be providing updates on election night and the following day.

1. Curing Reefer Madness

The children of California's failed Proposition 19 may outperform their parent. Marijuana legalization is on the ballot in Washington State, Oregon, and Colorado. All three initiatives would turn marijuana into a legal controlled substance, taxable by the state and heavily regulated.

Of the three initiatives, Washington's is performing the best in the polls, currently up around 54 percent. Initiative 502, unlike California's Proposition 19, has received a significant amount of political and media support. The latest poll numbers in Colorado have it ahead at 53 percent.

Oregon's is doing poorly with only 42 percent supporting legalization, according to a poll released Tuesday by The Oregonian.  As Philip Smith of the Drug War Chronicle notes, Oregon's measure is the most radical of the three, repealing the state's marijuana laws entirely, and is also poorly funded.

There are three other marijuana-related initiatives on the ballot as well. Massachusetts and Arkansas are considering allowing marijuana for medical use. Massachusetts' proposition seems likely to pass based on the latest polls. Numbers in Arkansas are less positive: An Oct. 22 poll has 54 percent of voters opposed to the proposition.

Montana has a somewhat unusual marijuana vote pending. Montana voters already legalized medical marijuana in 2004. Montana's legislature responded by trying to appeal the referendum (which failed) and subsequently adding a host of restrictions and regulations. Montana's Referendum IR-124 would determine whether voters want to accept these legislative changes or revert back to the initial rules. An October poll shows voter preference for the new rules.

2. We're Here, We're Queer, We're Registered at Macy's

Same-sex marriage recognition is on the ballot in four states: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.

In Maryland and Washington, the referendums will decide whether state legislation legalizing gay marriage recognition that has already passed will remain law. Polls for both initiatives show them nearly dead even at the end of October.

In Minnesota voters will decide whether to ban gay marriage recognition, while in Maine, voters will decide whether to end the state's ban, which was approved in a 2009 referendum. Minnesota's poll numbers are still fairly close, while the ACLU sees support for gay marriage recognition in Maine above 50 percent.

Same-sex marriage is currently recognized in six states, legalized through legislation or court action. Should Maryland, Washington, or Maine's referendums pass, it will be the first time gay marriage recognition survived a state-wide vote.

3. Labor Pains

As state budgets continue to take a beating, the relationship between public sector unions and the government that employs them continues to be a source of conflict.

Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia wrote about Michigan's "Protect Our Jobs" Amendment earlier in October. The initiative would add collective bargaining as a right recognized in Michigan's state constitution. Dalmia looked at some consequences of the amendment that Michigan voters may not realize, but that union leaders are well aware of:

The amendment says that no "existing or future laws shall abridge, impair or limit" the collective-bargaining rights of Michigan workers. That may sound innocuous, but according to Patrick Wright of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the amendment would hand a broad mandate to unions to challenge virtually any law they don't like.

Wright says that passage would almost certainly mean the end of Michigan's Public Act 112, which made the privatization of schools' food, busing and custodial services off-limits in collective-bargaining negotiations. More than 60 percent of Michigan school districts have privatized these services over the past two decades, resulting in annual savings of about $300 million.

Also unlikely to withstand legal challenge would be last year's Public Act 4, which gave state-appointed emergency managers broad powers to turn around fiscally distressed local entities by, among other things, rewriting union contracts. The act has already been applied to four cities and three school districts that otherwise by now would have had to file for bankruptcy.

Though the initiative led in early polls, numbers from late October have opposition now surpassing 50 percent.

In California, millions are being spent by both sides on Proposition 32, which would prohibit automatic paycheck deductions from both unions and corporations in order to fund political activity. Corporations don't normally engage in paycheck deductions to fund political activity, so the proposition is recognized as targeting unions.

Reason Foundation Vice President of Policy Adrian Moore analyzed the possible impacts of all of California's propositions and produced a voters guide. Current polls (including our Reason-Rupe poll) have the initiative behind.

Getting a bit less attention in Idaho, legislation that restricts teachers' collective bargaining agreements, requires teacher evaluations to evaluate student performance, essentially eliminates tenure, and mandates online classes for students, has all been pushed onto the ballot for public vote. There's a similar "veto referendum" in South Dakota to block implementation of legislation banning tenure and providing bonuses to top-performing teachers.

4. Screw the Teachers, Let's Start Our Own School

Washington is yet again a state to watch—marijuana, gay marriage, and charter schools. Initiative 1240 would allow 40 charter schools to be opened in the state over the next five years. Washington is one of eight states that currently don't have any charter schools. A mid-October poll has the charter school initiative ahead 47.5 percent to 39.2 percent among voters.

In Georgia, a charter school initiative would amend the state's constitution to give the state the authority to establish special schools and charter schools. Unlike Washington, Georgia does permit charter schools, but local school boards have the authority to reject charter petitions. Amendment 1 would create a commission that could essentially overrule the objections, but would not interfere with local school boards approving charter schools on their own.

Georgia's charter school initiative is currently leading in polls 47 percent to 37 percent. Interestingly, as Mark Rountree of Peach Pundit notes, the younger the voter is, the more likely he or she supports the initiative, and political party affiliation is not a factor.

Given how little difference in policy positions separate President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, the ballot initiatives are where many of the real political issues will be hammered out in this election. Isn't it notable how little these issues bubbled up into the presidential campaigns?