Initiatives span political spectrum

Voters drawn to the polls by ballot issues - from minimum wage to medical insurance - could affect presidential race.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Alaskans will decide whether to decriminalize marijuana use by adults. Californians are weighing whether the three-strikes law that set a get-tough standard for the nation needs to be toned down. Alabama and Arkansas must choose whether to raise property taxes to boost school funding.

For voters in 34 states, Tuesday's election means choosing "yea" or "nay" on 163 ballot measures that could affect their daily lives for years to come, ranging from a conservative movement to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage to liberal efforts such as marijuana legalization and raising the minimum wage.

Where some issues crop up in more than one state, the results of Tuesday's vote could signal national momentum on policy matters such as medical malpractice reform, the expansion of gambling, and the minimum wage.

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The lure of weighing in on such issues, moreover, promises to bring new sets of voters to the polls, a factor that could alter the presidential tallies in swing states. Key among those measures are minimum-wage proposals in Florida and Nevada; medical malpractice and insurance industry regulations in Florida, Nevada, and Oregon; and laws prohibiting gay marriage in Arkansas, Michigan, Oregon, and Ohio.

"Initiatives are the one thing that many voters say they are coming to the polls for," says Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington. Research going back to 1970 shows a 3 to 9 percent increase in voter turnout for states with the initiative process, she says. Although each initiative ostensibly brings in voters on both sides of every issue, she says polls show liberal and progressive voters may be attracted in greater net numbers - presumably aiding John Kerry in overall votes.

But other researchers hasten to add that advantage could be minimized when analyzed state by state. In the key battleground state of Ohio, for instance, President Bush is given a slight edge by the additional voters brought to the polls to vote on Amendment One, banning gay marriage, civil unions, and domestic-partner benefits. In Florida and Nevada, voters attracted to the polls to support a minimum wage increase are giving Mr. Kerry a slight advantage.

"These initiatives are definitely driving turnout in these key states," says Dan Smith, scholar on Democratic process at the University of Florida. "We are finding that although the margin is small - maybe as low as 1 percent - it could be decisive in a presidential contest as close as this."

Gail Tuzzolo, campaign manager for Question 6 in Nevada (proposing to raise the minimum hourly wage from $5.15 to $6.15), says supporters of the measure have targeted 150,000 "low propensity" voters (those who have voted only once in the past three elections). The campaign has helped to up the projected voter turnout 6 percent in populous Clarke County and 2 percent statewide, including significant numbers of Hispanics and blacks. She says her research shows 94 percent of those voters are in favor of a minimum wage hike and 83 percent are Kerry supporters.

In the critical state of Florida - which eventually went to Mr. Bush by fewer than 700 votes in 2000 - Megan Scott of "Yes on 5" (raising the minimum wage $1), says she has been overwhelmed by the bipartisan support and therefore is not willing to project an immediate advantage to Kerry.

Besides the issues affecting swing-state turnout, analysts say a number of other initiatives are being watched closely because they have national ramifications:

Electoral College. Colorado's Amendment 36 would allocate the state's nine electoral votes proportionately to each candidate's popular vote instead of giving them all to the statewide winner.

Clean energy. Amendment 37 in Colorado would require large state utilities to generate at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

Three strikes. California set off a domino effect as two dozen states followed its law putting criminals behind bars for life after a third conviction. Prop. 66 would soften the Golden State's law, the nation's toughest, by requiring that the third "strike" be a violent or serious felony.

Stem cells. In California, Prop. 71 would allocate $3 billion over 30 years for stem-cell research - a national litmus for interest in this frontier of medical science, controversial due to the question of whether human embryos should be destroyed to aid the research.

Employer-paid health insurance. California's Prop. 72 seeks to repeal a requirement for businesses to pay for the health insurance of employees and dependents.

Illegal immigration. Arizona's Prop. 200 would require proof of citizenship to register to vote and require state agencies to check the immigration status of program beneficiaries. The vote will signal attitudes toward illegal immigration a decade after a similar California measure passed but was found unconstitutional.

Gambling. Californians will decide whether to expand Indian gambling, with more of the revenue going to the state. Among other gambling measures, Washington may expand gambling to allow tax cuts, and Oklahoma may approve a lottery. Michigan is considering a new restriction: whether to require a statewide vote before any more nontribal casinos can open.

Marijuana. In addition to Alaska's vote on whether to legalize pot, Montana could become the 10th state to legalize medical use of marijuana, and Oregon may dramatically expand its existing medical use.

Elections. Ten electoral reform measures (in Alaska, Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, California, Washington, Oregon, Florida, Rhode Island, and Arizona), are considered a reflection of continued voter frustration across the country.

Incensed that Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his own daughter to his vacant Senate seat, citizens there are backing Ballot Measure 4 in overwhelming numbers, requiring a special election to fill an unexpected vacancy in the US Senate.

"The fact that it is not illegal for the governor to appoint his own daughter to his vacant Senate seat is something people here could not believe," says Peggy Wilcox, campaign manager for "Yes on 4." "There didn't seem to be an ethical compass here, so the people have had to step in."

Supporters of California's Prop. 62 hope voters will similarly step in to replace its current closed primary with a "blanket" primary in which voters may vote regardless of party affiliation. Washington voters are also being offered the chance to adopt a modified blanket primary.

John Matsusaka, founder of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, says the measures "show a significant degree of voter interest in changing the nature of elections that affect them."

Ballot initiatives to watch

Same-sex marriage: Constitutional ban proposed in 11 states.

Elections: States considering a variety of reforms. Colorado may opt to split electoral votes based on presidential candidates' proportion of the popular vote.

Minimum wage: Nevada and Florida consider raising it by $1 to $6.15.

Healthcare: Several states seek to cap awards in lawsuits against doctors. California considers whether to spend $3 billion to promote stem-cell research, and whether to repeal a requirement that employers provide health insurance.

Immigration: Arizona considers stricter verification of legal residence for people voting or receiving services not required by the federal government.

Marijuana: Alaska may decriminalize its use by residents over 21.

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