Voters stay cautious on ballot measures

Pricey education initiatives pass, but drug-policy reform and healthcare fall flat.

Not only did Americans tilt hard this year toward Republican candidates across the country, but on the myriad state ballot initiatives, they took a conservative and cautious approach to everything from election reform to marijuana legalization – with the notable exception of education.

It's a sign that the evolving American mood may extend beyond a new affinity for Republicans or President Bush. In fact, if the ballot initiatives are any clue, Americans are tipping toward a more status quo, less experimental approach in this time of fiscal uncertainty and terrorist threats.

Indeed, the most liberal of the nation's big ballot initiatives failed – universal health care in Oregon, marijuana legalization in Nevada, and same-day voter registration in California and Colorado. But five of six major education reforms passed, including Florida's plan to reduce class sizes and a universal preschool measure, despite big price tags for both.

"Voters ... voted to maintain the status quo more than anything else – although they have a huge soft spot for education," says M. Dane Waters of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a conservative group in Washington.

Of all the major categories of initiatives, it was drug-policy reform – arguably one of the most liberal – that got the biggest drubbing. The Nevada marijuana plan failed. So did an Arizona effort to legalize medical marijuana and a plan to offer treatment, not jail time, to Ohio drug offenders. In South Dakota, even an initiative to legalize the cultivation and industrial processing of hemp – a plant from the marijuana family – was rejected.

Rejected, too, was an unusual South Dakota plan to allow defendants to argue not just their cases, but whether laws are fair.

Observers say the defeats represent Americans' ambivalence about drug legalization. A Time/CNN poll recently found that just 34 percent of Americans support making pot legal, but 80 percent support medical marijuana, and 72 percent say recreational pot users should be fined, not jailed. Yet with an impending war in Iraq, economic doldrums, and threats of terror, these social experiments didn't muster majority support.

"In the post-9/11 era, people are much more sympathetic to law-enforcement points of view and less supportive of liberalization of laws and social behavior," says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Even relatively benign issues dealing with election reform – a hot topic for liberals after the 2000 debacle in Florida – didn't fare well. Voters in California and Colorado rejected letting citizens register to vote on election day.

Yet voters pushed for big changes in education. The two Florida initiatives passed, despite questions about funding. The class-size plan could cost $20 billion. In California, a $13-billion education-spending plan was approved, as was a plan to expand after-school care backed by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

English immersion initiatives succeeded in Massachusetts but failed in Colorado. Education gains signal continuing frustration over school quality and a desire to prioritize education. "Voters are saying education is worth investing in, despite the tight economic times," says Julie Bell, an education specialist at Denver's National Conference of State Legislatures.

In some elections, education trumped transportation. California and Washington rejected multi- billion-dollar pushes to rebuild bridges and roads, although Seattle approved a $1.7 billion plan for a monorail. "It's an interesting reflection on what people are willing to increase their taxes for," says Kristina Wilfore of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington. Voters also seem enticed by the economics of gambling. Tennessee approved a state lottery, leaving Hawaii and Utah as the only states prohibiting gambling. Progambling measures also passed in North Dakota, Arizona, and Idaho.

But liberals can take solace in the success of animal rights measures. Pregnant Florida pigs will no longer be penned up in tiny crates. Oklahoma will prohibit cockfighting, although Arkansas balked at a plan to make some animal-cruelty crimes felonies.

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