As voters in 50 states changed the face of Congress and signaled their displeasure over the war in Iraq, voters in 37 states spoke loudly Tuesday about a host of issues closer to home via 205 ballot initiatives. The measures covered a range of issues, from the year's hot-button debates over eminent domain and gay marriage, to the perennial favorites of exactly how to tax and spend on everything from roads and bridges to education.
"The voters are changing things in Washington but also changing a lot in their states using direct democracy," says John Matsusaka, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
The people spoke in unison for many of the year's most watched votes. But this unanimity did not align with either party's traditional stances.
Voters in six states approved increases to the minimum wage, a typically Democratic issue. Yet all but one of the eight ballot measures to ban gay marriage passed – bringing the number of states with such amendments to 23. Arizona became the first state to reject such a ban.
Red-state South Dakota said "thumbs down" to a sweeping abortion ban and Missouri said "thumbs up" to stem-cell research.
The number of measures – the third highest ever – is up from 162 last year, continuing an upward trend.
"Arguably, if you really look at what goes on in states, these decisions set the tone and drive the agenda of what politicians will focus on in taking the directions that really affect people's lives," Mr. Matsusaka says. "The ballot [propositions] are as important as what the guys in state legislatures do."
Experts are now trying to identify possible trends, direction shifts, mixed messages, and apparent contradictions in the voting results that will affect the daily lives of state citizens for years to come.
While many House seats swung Democrat this year, observers say voters approved a mix of conservative and liberal agendas, repeating a perennial pattern that avoids simple political analysis.
"At the end of the day, both liberals and conservatives had big wins. Everyone is going to get something," says Matsusaka.
Arizonans, for instance, approved raising the minimum wage by an overwhelming margin of 66 percent to 34 percent. At the same time, they prohibited state subsidies to illegal aliens (71 percent) and made English the state's official language (74 percent).Californians gave a green light to four major infrastructure bonds backed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the same governor they roundly rebuffed last fall by turning back four separate initiatives he backed.
Much of Tuesday's ballot-measure voting was a reaction to events that angered voters and prompted them to try to take back some measure of control.
"One of the biggest initiative trends this year was widespread dissatisfaction with the idea of government being able to take private property for a private enterprise," says Oliver Griswold, spokesman for the Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center in Washington. Spurred by Kelo v. New London, a 2005 US Supreme Court decision that allowed governments to condemn property for use by a private developer, 12 states voted on whether to restrict or ban the use of eminent domain for private purposes.
Nine approved such measures (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, and South Carolina). The three that failed (California, Idaho, and Washington) included stronger language, specifying that when a government passes a law or institutes a regulation that affects property values adversely, it must compensate the land owners.
"There has been the perception of increasing need to stop overly ambitious taking of land by government since the Kelo decision," says James Ettelson, an eminent domain expert with the law firm Thorp, Reed, and Armstrong.
"There was a fear of the unknown in the passage of these restrictions," says Mr. Ettelson. "Now, citizens and government alike will be able to live with their decisions for awhile and reflect what they want to do longer term."
A second key trend this year was the push to raise state minimum wages.
"These votes in several states show that Americans have a growing discomfort with the shrinking of the middle class and the rise of a new underclass that [is] fundamentally at odds with one of the fundamental pillars of American life – namely that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead," says Danny Feingold, spokesman for the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy, which studies the working poor. "That is not happening for tens of millions of Americans."
California voters said "no" to a measure that would have taxed oil companies $4 billion and used the money for investment in alternative energy. Proponents were outspent 2 to 1 ($100 million to $50 million) in one of the most expensive campaigns in history. Bill Clinton and Al Gore both campaigned on the "yes" side.
"You have to look at the fact that big oil spent $100 million to plant seeds of doubt on the issue of accountability and cost [of this measure]," says Beth Willon, spokeswoman for Yes on 87. Proponents say they were encouraged by the vote's narrow margin (55-45). "The fight is not over."