Ballot Initiatives

Guns, Drugs, and Money: Here's What's on State and Local Ballots in the 2014 Midterms

Ballot initiatives across the country offer more substance in the midterm elections than the battle for Senate control.


"I cannot tell a lie. I am so baked right now."
Credit: Mike2focus |

Already bored of the endless, exhaustive, never-ending analysis of which party will control the Senate after the midterms? Maybe it's because you realize it's probably not going to change anything substantial about how Congress or the president behaves anyway.

Perhaps take a gander at some ballot initiatives instead. They can be troubling creatures, ballot initiatives, being easily orchestrated and manipulated by special interests to pass laws that benefit themselves while claiming they're in the public interest. Take California, where a ballot initiative related to rate changes for health insurance on the November ballot is sponsored by a group with a state-paid contract to intervene in rate cases.

But ballot initiatives are also a chance for voters to bypass politicians that are so beholden to other special interests they're not really serving the public anymore, if they ever were. Your state legislators too afraid of law enforcement unions (or of losing their donations) to scale back the drug war? Fine, put the matter up for a vote.  Now whether the voters should be able to bypass politicians on any matter they choose—well, that's a completely different fight.

There are hundreds of ballot initiatives—on the state, county and municipal level—that will go before voters in November. Reason can't possibly outline all of them. But we can draw attention to many of interest to libertarian or independent voters. Here are some notables voters are considering:


Washington has two completely competing ballot initiatives on gun background checks. Initiative 594 would require background checks for every gun purchase in the state, though it exempts antique guns and transfers between family members. According to some analysis of the text, it goes so far as to make it illegal to even temporarily physically give a gun to somebody else except in cases where a person is in immediate danger or when hunting or on shooting ranges.

On the other side, Initiative 591 would forbid Washington from confiscating firearms without due process or from implementing background checks unless there's a uniform national standard. Needless to say, both of these laws can't coexist. Early October polls have background checks passing handily, though support for both initiatives seems to have dropped.

Chicago also has an "advisory" vote planned on whether to require background checks for gun sales and to ban the sale of "assault weapons," despite the city's reputation of having the toughest gun control laws in the country (and also, coincidentally, a reputation for people shooting each other). And on the flip side, Alabama voters will consider enshrining a state constitutional amendment protecting the right to bear arms and prohibiting any international treaties from interfering with this right.


The big marijuana votes this fall are in Oregon, Alaska, and D.C., where residents will consider joining Washington and Colorado in full (albeit regulated) legalization.  Polls in Alaska have gone back and forth as to whether legalization will pass. Oregon's numbers are more positive, but the undecideds could push the outcome in either direction. D.C.'s seems most likely to pass, but there's the issue of whether Congress will attempt to block the will of the voters.

Playing catch-up with several other states, Florida voters will decide whether to permit medical marijuana use for a host of ailments. Despite opposition from Gov. Rick Scott, more than a dozen polls show the initiative passing. Several other cities, like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as several municipalities in Michigan, will consider whether to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Related to the drug war, California's Proposition 47 would reduce classifications of many nonviolent or drug crimes within the state from felonies to misdemeanors in sentencing. As Reason's Jacob Sullum previously noted, the law's passage would allow around 10,000 inmates to seek shorter sentences.  A poll from September shows the initiative passing.

Not all ballot initiatives related to drugs are about the illegal stuff. Arizona residents will decide whether terminally ill patients can attempt medical treatments that have completed early clinical trials but have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It appears to be doing very well in polls. Illinois has a non-binding advisory vote on whether health insurers should be required to cover birth control. Critics have complained that Democrats in the state are using this meaningless initiative (and two others on increasing the minimum wage and increasing taxes on millionaires) as a way to get out the vote for an otherwise lackluster election. The passage of any of the three initiatives does not obligate the state to act. Chicago is pulling a similar trick.


Minimum wage increases are under consideration in several states. Alaska would increase theirs to $8.75 an hour next year and then to $9.75 the following year. Then it would be indexed to inflation or at least $1 higher than the federal minimum wage. Arkansas would increase theirs to $7.50 an hour in 2015 and eventually to $8.50 by 2017. As mentioned above, Illinois has a nonbinding advisory vote to increase the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour. Nebraska voters are asked to increase their minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016. South Dakota wants to increase its minimum wage to $8.50 an hour and then tie future increases to inflation.

Showing California can never be outdone in terms of labor regulation, Oakland and San Francisco are proposing minimum wage increases up to $12.25 an hour. But that's just the start. Oakland also wants to require employers to provide between five and nine days of paid sick leave, depending on the size of the business. San Francisco proposes continuing the minimum wage increases every year until it hits $15 an hour by 2018.

There are also some tax proposals up for vote. Georgia asks voters if they would like to cap the current income tax rate at six percent and prohibit the Assembly from increasing it any further. Nearby Florida and Tennessee don't have state income taxes, and competition is driving the argument for the cap. Tennessee is working on trying to keep its competitive position by putting to vote a ban that keeps the state or local governments from levying a payroll or income tax.

Massachusetts, remarkably, may get rid of a bad tax system. I know! Massachusetts tied its gas tax to inflation so that it could be increased automatically without any sort of vote or accountability. The governor opposes getting rid of the system (and wants even higher gas taxes). Polls are mixed with a huge number of undecided. Opponents are saying that a no vote threatens transportation and infrastructure funding, which has nothing to do with the mechanism by which taxes are levied.

And then, again, there's California. The cities of Berkeley and San Francisco are asking voters to levy soda taxes, two cents per ounce for sugary drinks in San Francisco and half that in Berkeley.  Ira Stoll wrote about these populist tax efforts and others in September.

And the Rest …

Some other ballot initiatives aren't so easily classifiable but are worthy of note:

  • Colorado and Oregon are asking voters whether to demand labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). Humboldt County in California and Maui County in Hawaii are both trying to ban GMO crops entirely.
  • Fracking bans are on the menu in Mendocino and San Benito counties in California and in Athens, Georgia.
  • Arkansas is catching up with the end of alcohol prohibition, if voters permit. Issue 4 on their November ballot would legalize alcohol sale, manufacture and transportation across the state. The state currently allows counties to declare themselves "dry" and not allow the sale of liquor.
  • Colorado and North Dakota both have initiatives to grant recognition of personhood to the unborn to varying degrees. North Dakota's would amend the state constitution to provide for the "inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development" to be recognized and protected. That sounds nice and divisive.

Need to check out ballot initiatives in your state? Ballotpedia has a state-by-state guide here. An interesting bit of trivia: Despite all these issues on the ballot in November, we're actually seeing a lull. According to Ballotpedia, we haven't seen such a low number of state ballot initiatives (146) on a fall election since 1988. But, as Ballotpedia also notes, new regulations have made it harder for initiative supporters to qualify their proposals for the ballot.