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Election 2012: Ballot initiatives reflect nation's mood

The 174 propositions on state ballots point to evolving opinions on marijuana, same-sex marriage, health care, and more. Do the initiatives show the power of direct democracy or lack of legislative leadership?

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Physician-assisted suicide. Massachusetts' Question 2 would allow a person diagnosed as terminally ill by physicians to be given a lethal injection. A poll in late August showed voters in favor by 2 to 1. Since 1991, five states have voted on physician-assisted suicide, with Washington rejecting it that year but approving a similar measure 17 years later. Other proposals were voted down in Michigan and California in the 1990s but passed in Oregon in 1994.

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Union dues. California's Proposition 32 will try to prohibit union dues from being used for political purposes without explicit authorization of members. Intended to lessen the power of public employee unions in the state, the measure would prohibit union and corporate contributions to campaigns and bar government contractors from campaign contributions. Similar measures were narrowly defeated in 1998 and 2005.

Death penalty. California's Proposition 34 would abolish capital punishment in the state, converting all existing death-row sentences to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Since California adopted the death penalty in 1978, it has executed 13 people; 57 people on death row have died of natural causes. "California spent over $4 billion trying to enforce capital punishment – $4 billion for 13 people. It makes no sense economically," said Sacramento attorney Donald Heller, who wrote the state's 1978 law but now supports Prop. 34, to CBS News.

What can be gleaned from the votes?

Some say they signal the power of direct democracy. "Ballot measure spending is still far and away one of the most expensive political exercises in the free world, next to the big one of the US presidential race," says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. "That's quite a statement of the power of the ballot box and really the power of voters to say, 'No, we don't want that,' or, 'We prefer the status quo.' "

Others say the ballot measures show a lack of leadership and the growth of infighting in legislatures.

"In short, these direct democracy mechanisms signal a breakdown of the moderating influences of representative government articulated by the Founding Fathers in the US Constitution," says Eric Patterson, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. Those include checks and balances, federalism, separation of powers, and "other long-forgotten instruments, such as the selection of senators by state legislatures and moderate jurisprudence rather than social engineering from the bench."

The question for this November, he says, "is whether states can harness the positive energy of activated citizens toward a common good rather than disintegrate in petty bickering. We'll need statesmen and stateswomen from both parties for that to happen."

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