Millions of Americans - in 42 states and the District of Columbia - faced an array of statewide ballot propositions on Nov. 2. Several political commentators have written that the 237 questions before voters were the most in 50 years. In truth, there is no way to be certain of that, because prior to this year no one has counted the total number of all ballot questions.
It is true that the total of 52 initiatives - those measures which came to the ballot as a result of direct citizen petitioning - is the greatest number since 1932, when more than 70 initiatives secured ballot status.
During the 1978 and 1980 election cycles, conservative initiative activists dominated the ballot measure scene, primarily through tax cut/limitation proposals. While con-servatives are definitely still in the ball game - Oregon's Measure 3, a massive property tax slash, lost by less than 2 percent - the most significant development in the last two years has been a dramatic increase in the effectiveness and credibility of liberal-leaning initiative drives. This trend will undoubtedly continue.
Many commentators have criticized the whole process of the initiative, contending that the increasing number of citizen-initiated ballot measures threatens to ''clutter up'' our ballots and/or undermine representative gov-ernment.
On the first point, the most important thing to note is that the overwhelming majority of all ballot questions - even in the 23 states which have initiative process - come to the ballot as a result of legislative action.
On the second point, critics may have a stronger argument. Clearly, the initiative provides a mechanism which can be used to bypass the processes of representative government.
Nevertheless, voters across the ideological spectrum have become more and more convinced that many of their most pressing concerns - ranging from tax relief to the safety of nuclear power - are not addressed by state legislatures, where well-organized groups manage to control what is debated. The initiative process is viewed by its supporters - the majority of Americans according to Gallup and Harris polls of recent years - as an important safety valve to supplement, not undermine, representative democracy.
While there may be room for important reforms of the initiative process in some states, the process is incredibly popular with citizens. As an ideologically neutral mechanism for bringing important matters to the people, the initiative is here to stay. It will be increasingly important in the balance of this century.
As for the 1982 ballot results, no clear picture emerges. Voters were not predictably conservative or liberal, although they did show a general reluctance to approve sweeping proposals to increase business regulation (with a few notable exceptions).
However, in at least two areas, voter sentiments were fairly clear: the 1982 voter is nervous about the nuclear arms race and apparently angry about crime rates.
The various nuclear freeze proposals - on the Nov. 2 ballot in nine states, Washington, D.C., and 29 local jurisdictions - attracted the most media attention. Although the popular vote broke roughly 60 percent-40 percent in favor of the freeze, in Arizona the freeze actually lost by nearly 20 percent. The measure was also close in California, prevailing by only 3 percent.
There were a number of signs in the final days of the freeze campaigns that the public was beginning to polarize on the issue. Thus, it would not be surprising if, in 1983 and 1984, the freeze becomes a more muddled picture than it was in 1982.
For the moment, however, it is clear that proponents of the nuclear weapons freeze achieved significant victories and that the concept enjoys widespread public support.
Popular concern about crime rates led to a rash of criminal justice ballot questions this year. In June, California voters approved the sweeping Gann initiative - popularly known as the ''Victim's Rights Bill.'' In September, citizens in the District of Columbia approved a tough mandatory sentencing initiative.
The questions on the Nov. 2 ballots, while generally less sweeping than the two proposals from earlier this year, still constituted clear public concern about crime. Bail-toughening provisions gained approval in Arizona, Colorado, and Illinois. Florida voters toughened up on search/seizure and pretrial release/detention. In Missouri, the people voted to remove the requirement that the state Supreme Court review every term of life imprisonment.
The most visible question in the crime-related area was Proposition 15 in California, a gun control initiative which voters rejected nearly 2-1. In Nevada and New Hampshire, voters chose to reaffirm the right to keep and bear arms, while the death penalty gained 60 percent approval in Massachusetts.
On tax questions, voters generally consented to indirect, long-range taxation by approving a number of major bond proposals. However, the tax revolt is not dead, despite the observations of some commentators in the days since the election.
Some 26 ballot measures dealt with taxes. Sixteen of these would have reduced or limited taxes. The majority of these proposals won.
Nine measures would have increased taxes or potentially shifted some of the tax burden to corporate interests. Most of these were defeated.