POLITICAL labeling, always inexact, becomes fuzzier than ever when applied to the outcomes of ballot questions. The narrow victory of California's Proposition 103, which cuts auto insurance rates by 20 percent, gladdens citizen reformers like Ralph Nader, a major backer of the measure. Perhaps that's one for the liberals. But many of the Californians who voted for 103 were probably motivated by the same kind of pocketbook frustrations that ushered in Proposition 13 and the taxpayers' revolt a decade ago. That was usually perceived as a conservative cause.
In both cases voters were fed up with government's inability to address a grievance. The insurers, who unsuccessfully fielded their own battery of propositions, now have a pocketbook frustration of their own. They plan an appeal to the state's supreme court, pleading the premium-slashing voters have unconstitutionally taken their property. The industry's nightmare is that Prop. 103 will spawn clones elsewhere, as Prop. 13 did. Activists from other states are said to be phoning Nader headquarters for guidelines.
The tax revolt, though, appeared to lose steam this year. Measures that would have capped tax rates, required larger legislative majorities to raise taxes, or made tax increases impossible without citizen approval failed in South Dakota, Arkansas, and Colorado.
At the same time, measures instituting or upholding restrictions on abortion - for many conservatives a top agenda item - passed in Michigan, Colorado, and Arkansas. Those results may build momentum behind pro-life efforts to expand the number of states that limit abortion.
Voters in Massachusetts, often characterized as among the most liberal places in the union, roundly defeated an attempt to close the state's two nuclear power plants - a favorite cause of many liberal activists. Pragmatism won out in that case, since the plants' electricity is badly needed.
Pragmatism may have also triumphed in Maryland, where voters pushed aside the big-spending National Rifle Association in upholding a ban on small handguns. If reducing the number of weapons in circulation makes sense to superpower arms negotiators, why not to average people in neighborhoods where guns pop up in the pockets of schoolchildren?
Government was told to stay clear of intrusion in personal lives in California, where a measure requiring doctors to report AIDS patients so the state could trace their sexual partners was defeated.
These results defy easy characterization. Self-described conservatives and self-described liberals probably united on many of these measures. This year's bumper crop of initiatives and referendums brought voters of all shades face to face with actual issues - no small accomplishment at a time when aspirants for high office sometimes seem intent on sidestepping issues.