Ballot Measures Put Hot-Button Issues To A Vote

Guests

Jennie Drage Bowser, senior fellow, National Conference of State Legislatures
Amy Standen, science reporter, KQED
Andrew Yeager, reporter, WBHM

In many states, the tight presidential race isn't the only thing on people's minds: Ballot measures are putting some controversial social and political issues up for popular vote. Same-sex marriage and the death penalty are just two of the measures voters will weigh in on come election day.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Election Day less than three weeks away now, and in addition to elective offices from president on down, over 170 ballot measures will be decided November 6th. Same-sex marriage; legalization of marijuana and the death penalty; just a few of the often-controversial issues to be settled by direct democracy.

What's the ballot measure you're following in your state? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Brad Stone's short and exhausting career as a task rabbit, but first Jennie Drage Bowser joins us. She's a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, where her work focuses on ballot initiatives. She's with us on the phone from Golden, Colorado. Nice to have you with us today.

JENNIE DRAGE BOWSER: Hi, Neal, thanks for inviting me.

CONAN: And gay marriage has been on the ballot many times. Every time so far it's lost. In somewhat different forms, it's up this year in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and in the state of Washington. Could 2012 be different?

BOWSER: You know, all signs are pointing to the idea that it might be different. As you said, some of the questions are a little bit different this year, but I think that there is a good chance that the outcome will be different this year, too.

CONAN: I see polls in both Maine and in Maryland suggesting that this - most voters support the measures. And in both places, the legislatures passed the law, and this is a question about so if you vote yes, you're voting in favor of gay marriage.

BOWSER: That's in Maine in Washington. In those two states, the legislatures passed a legalization of same-sex marriage and opponents qualified what's called a popular referendum, and this is a chance for voters to veto something that the legislature has passed.

And so, yes, a yes vote in this case would be in favor of keeping the legislatures' bill as law, legalizing same-sex marriage. The Maine question is very different. The Maine question actually asks voters: Shall we legalize same-sex marriage? And this is the first time a state's voters have ever been asked that question in that way. In the past, it's always been shall we limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.

CONAN: And that is the question, as I understand it, in Minnesota.

BOWSER: Minnesota has the traditional question that we've seen so many times over the past decade. It would insert a statement into the state constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

CONAN: But as I understand it would leave open the possibility of civil unions.

BOWSER: Yeah, and those questions have varied on that issue over the past decade.

CONAN: And Maine and Maryland at least seem to be leaning in favor of same-sex marriage. What's the situation in Minnesota and in Washington state?

BOWSER: Washington also appears to be leaning in favor. The last poll I saw out of Minnesota had it in a statistical tie.

CONAN: We'll find out what happens on Election Day. We want you to call and tell us what measure you're following in your state, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Zack, and Zack's on the line with us from Pueblo, Colorado.

ZACK: Hi, Neal, I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

ZACK: I'm calling to talk because I've been following Amendment 64 really closely. It's the state measure in Colorado that would legalize the use of marijuana by adults and regulate marijuana like alcohol.

CONAN: And what's your particular interest in this? There's already medical marijuana legal in Colorado.

ZACK: That's right, but I think that one of the - there's two big things that - why I support it. One is that the first $40 million that's collected by the new tax it's going to implement is going to go towards school construction. My partner works at a school, at a public school that doesn't have any air conditioning because voters - because the district can't afford to put money towards construction right now.

But - and there were days in the last school year where there were rooms in her building where the temperature was over 95 degrees.

CONAN: All right, Zack, thanks very much for the call.

ZACK: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it, and Jennie Drage Bowser, that's - Colorado's not the only state where legalization of marijuana is on the ballot.

BOWSER: No, it's one of three states this year. The other two are Oregon and Washington. And if you can remember all the way back to 2010, we had Proposition 19 on the ballot in California that was very similar to what's on the ballot in these three states this year.

CONAN: And again, it's interesting, the arguments are pretty much, well, this could generate a lot of revenue that w could use and avoid sending a lot of people to jail that really don't need to be there.

BOWSER: Sure, sure, and Colorado in particular has a pretty robust medical marijuana program already in existence.

CONAN: And it's interesting, at least I know in Washington state, one of the big opponents of the measure there is the medical marijuana industry.

BOWSER: You know, I'm not surprised. But, you know, when you look at all of the various polls coming out of these three states, Washington appears to be the one most likely of the three to pass on November 6th.

CONAN: Which will then cause a question because of course marijuana still a Schedule 1 narcotic under federal law.

BOWSER: Absolutely.

CONAN: California for many years has been the epicenter of ballot measures. Amy Standen is a science reporter for member station KQED. She's been reporting on Proposition 37 there, that's a ballot initiative that would require labels on raw or processed foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, among other things. She joins us now from their studios in San Francisco. Nice to have you on the program with us.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal, good to be here.

CONAN: And Prop 37, exactly what would it require?

STANDEN: Prop 37 would require that every food item sold in a grocery store that contains genetically engineered ingredients would have to have a label on it, a little label on the back that would say made with GMO. And basically that would amount, unless food manufacturers start changing the ingredients pretty quickly, it would be almost everything kind of in that middle of the supermarket, so.... Crackers, cereals, cookies, candy, sodas, that kind of thing.

CONAN: And who's in favor, who's opposed?

STANDEN: Well, the people who have sponsored this proposition, the Yes on 37 crew, say that consumers basically have a right to know. It's a right to know issue for them. They say that the science on these products is still uncertain, that we don't completely know that they're safe.

And they point to Europe, where this kind of labeling has been happening for almost a decade. And they say why shouldn't we also, here in the States, have access to this information.

CONAN: And those opposed, are they food manufacturers who are worried that people are not going to buy their products?

STANDEN: Exactly, I mean the fear there is that GMO basically has become sort of a scarlet letter and that if you start putting these made with GMO labels on products that consumers aren't going to buy them. And one of the reasons this is generating so much heat and so much money, really, is that California is a huge market.

So if we start seeing those labels in our stores here in California, it's very likely that's going to become sort of a national label, as well. It's just not really worth it for food manufacturers to make two sets of packages.

CONAN: And how is this playing out on the ground? There's not going to be much advertising for the presidential campaign there in California, solidly blue state, but is this all over TV and radio?

STANDEN: It certainly is. I mean, what we're seeing is the sort of expenditure of a very, very expensive and well-funded campaign on the no side. So the no people, the anti-labeling group, has outspent - I'm sorry, outraised the yes camp by a factor of about five to one. They've raised about - almost $40 million. And that's been a barrage of TV ads.

And, you know, I can tell you as a reporter that any story that we do on this generates more email instantly than any other topic that we've been covering. It's become a really, really heated debate.

CONAN: And I also understand at least according to opinion polls, despite that disparity in fundraising, Prop 37 looks set to pass.

STANDEN: It just might. It's interesting to see that the money is not necessarily going to carry the day here. Recent polls - until really recently, when the ads started ramping up - we were seeing about 60 to 70 percent of Californians in support of the law, so supporting labeling.

There was a recent poll that suggests that might be slipping a little bit, but it's sort of unclear how the question was framed on that poll. It still looks pretty likely to pass.

CONAN: Would this proposition affect other labeling issues? As you know, there's all kinds of vague and impossible-to-define claims on all kinds of food labels, made with natural products, for example, you know.

STANDEN: Well, the word natural, which has until now been an unregulated term, would now take on a new meaning, which is does not include genetically engineered ingredients. So a food maker could not put that word natural on, you know, a box of cereal or granola or whatever if it had a GMO product in it.

CONAN: Made with whole grains?

STANDEN: Yes, you know, I'm not really sure. I don't think the language there has really been spelled out, and that's really one of the criticisms of this law, is that it is vague, that the organic label already includes - you know, if you want to sell something as organic, it already can't have GMOs in it. And so the labeling, you know, it sort of remains to be seen how it would play out.

But certainly we know we'd see that GMO little acronym on hundreds of products.

CONAN: Amy Standen, thanks very much for your time today.

STANDEN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Amy Standen, science reporter for member station KQED, with us from their studios in San Francisco. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Sonny, and Sonny's with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

SONNY: Hi, Neal. We have a really asinine proposal on our ballot this year, it's Proposal 6. And what's happened is Matty Moroun, who owns the only bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, and wants to maintain his monopoly has bankrolled this campaign to make it - if 6 passes, it would require that there be a direct vote of the people to approve any international crossing from Michigan to Canada, which basically means it's probably not going to happen.

And Canada has actually decided to pay the entirety of the bridge because of the need for the additional capacity crossing for trade purposes. So there wouldn't be any cost to taxpayers in any case.

CONAN: Or little cost, approaches, that sort of thing. There would inevitably be some cost. But this is - I'm aware of this story, and I say the same thing every time I hear about it. One person owns a bridge, it's not publicly owned?

SONNY: It's not publicly owned. It's owned by one family. And there's not a coherent opposition because no one stands to gain any money by having this proposition struck down. So I'm afraid it's going to pass.

CONAN: Jennie Drage Bowser, is our caller right, is Sonny right?

BOWSER: You know, I haven't checked on the polling, but yeah, he's right in summarizing this issue. From what I understand, Detroit and Windsor have already come to an agreement to build a publicly funded and supported bridge, and this initiative's passage would essentially stop that in its tracks.

And, you know, this is an instance of something that happens frequently in the initiative process, where a proponent, a business or a corporation or even an individual can qualify something for the ballot that with passage would ultimately support their own financial interests.

It's something that is illegal in the legislative process; you can't bribe a legislature to make what you want to happen policy-wise, and it's really why the initiative process came about in the first place, was to stop this from happening in state legislatures. So it's particularly ironic to see it happening so frequently in the initiative process.

CONAN: Sonny, thanks very much for the phone call.

SONNY: Thank you.

CONAN: What's the ballot measure you're following in your state? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also reach us by email, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In Oklahoma, voters next month get a chance to weigh in on affirmative action. State Question 759 would ban discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, sex or national origin. Proposition 32 in California aims to prevent union dues from being used for political purposes without specific approval from union members.

We've mentioned marijuana, same-sex marriage. In a moment, an effort in Alabama to remove language from the state constitution left over from the Jim Crow era. All told, voters will get a chance to weigh in on over 170 ballot measures across the country next month. What's the ballot measure you're following? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Jennie Drage Bowser, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Jennie Drage Bowser, there's also several states considering this year proposals on the Affordable Care Act.

BOWSER: Yes, and this is not a brand new issue, it's been on the ballot in a few states before. This year it will be on the November ballot in Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming. In all five cases, state legislatures referred these questions to the ballot, they didn't come from that petition effort called the citizen initiative.

They vary in their language, but they generally say that the state can't compel anyone to have health insurance or participate in a health care system and that the state can't levy any sort of fine or penalty for failure to have health insurance. So it's essentially an effort to exempt the state from the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

CONAN: And again there could be interesting conflicts with federal law. The Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act last spring, and if Mr. Obama is re-elected, well, at that point there are going to be requirements under federal law that you're going to have to comply with.

BOWSER: Right, and, you know, you know, federal law in instances like this where federal and state law conflict, federal law takes precedence. So I think that these measures, which have passed in all but one state that have considered them in the past, are bound to end up before the courts.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Jane(ph), Jane with us from Marin County in California.

JANE: Thank you very much. I'm calling about Proposition 34 ending the death penalty and replacing it with life without possibility of parole in California. There are only 34 states in the United States that still have a death penalty. In 1977, there was no death penalty, and Senator John Briggs got together with his brother - with his son and a brother-in-law, and they felt that we needed to reinstate the death penalty.

And so on November 7, 1978, California voters passed the Briggs Initiative on the death penalty. In February 12 of this year, a letter appeared in the L.A. Times from Ron Briggs, the senator's son, who is - who was at that time a member of the board of supervisors in El Dorado County, and in the letter it said we thought we would bring California savings and safety in dealing with convicted murderers. Instead, we contributed to a nightmarish system that coddlers murderers and enriches lawyers.

Our initiative was intended to bring about greater justice for murder victims. Never did we envision a multi-billion-dollar industry that packs murderers onto death row for decades of extremely expensive incarceration. We thought we would empty death row, not triple its population.

Currently there are 727 condemned men on - and three women also in that total, condemned individuals on death row in California. If we started executing them as fast as we could, which would be about one per month, it would take 60 years to clear out just the people that are on death row at this time, never mind the ones that will come in if we don't pass this proposition.

It costs $137,000....

CONAN: Jane, excuse me, clearly you've got your position prepared, and we wanted to give other people a chance to get in the conversation.

JANE: Oh, OK, all right.

CONAN: But Jennie Drage Bowser, I think she does have her facts correct, at least in terms of the timing and of course the letter from Mr. Briggs, but in terms of the polling, how does the voting look?

JANE: Well, you know, I haven't checked on the polling on that, but this is one of three major criminal justice measures on the ballot in California this year. And, you know, aside from the criminal justice issue, they have a potentially significant impact on the state budget in California.

BOWSER: And it's no secret that California's fiscal situation has been dire for a number of years, and I think it's accurate to say that the cost of prison is a significant chunk of the state budget. So in addition to Proposition 34 that would repeal the death penalty, they also have Proposition 35 that would increase penalties for human trafficking and certain sex offenders, and Proposition 36, which would amend the three-strikes law.

And remember, this is something that was passed by initiative originally a couple decades ago, and it says when you're convicted of a third felony, you go to prison for life. And what this measure would do is revise that so that you only go to prison for life if your third felony is serious or violent.

You know, there's that story out there that maybe is an urban legend, I don't know, about the guy who stole a pizza and ended up going to prison for life. So it's aimed at cases like that, whether that one is really true or not, only putting the serious and violent felons in prison for life, which presumably would be a significant cost savings in the California budget.

CONAN: And as you mentioned in passing, the governor's measure that would raise I think the sales tax and allow him to increase taxes on the wealthiest Californians or, he would argue, institute draconian budget buts.

BOWSER: Yeah, and, you know, there are actually two measures on that topic in California this year. There's Proposition 30, which Governor Brown was the chief sponsor of. It temporarily raises the sales tax and income taxes for income in excess of $250,000 and gives the money mostly to K-through-12 education and community colleges but also fills budget gaps.

But there is a competing measure, it's Proposition 38. It was sponsored by an attorney in Pasadena, and it would increase the - just the income tax, not the sales tax, for all but the lowest earners in the state, and it's on a sliding scale so that if you earn more, you pay more. And that would give the money to pre-K through 12.

And historically, seeing two initiatives on the ballot in a single election that are in competition with each other, they both address the same subject, has been the kiss of death for both. Voters sort of say, you know, I don't know exactly what the difference between these two is, and I can't suss out the details, but I know what the law is now so I'm going to go ahead and vote no against both, sort of the status quo is the safe choice.

We'll have to wait and see if Governor Brown's involvement in Proposition 30 might be enough credibility added to that measure to, you know, to change the history on that sort of supposition.

CONAN: Andrew Yeager is a reporter with member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. He's been following a local measure there, Amendment 4, which would change the Alabama state constitution to remove Jim Crow-era language about racial segregation in schools, and he joins us from a studio there. Nice to have you with us today.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And what language are we talking about?

YEAGER: This is language that deals with poll taxes, that deals with segregation of schools, language that, you know, really doesn't apply in practice anymore because the courts have overturned these practices. But this particular language is still in Alabama's constitution, kind of a lingering legacy of Alabama's Jim Crow past.

CONAN: And yet as I understand it, some African-American groups are saying wait a minute, we don't want this change.

YEAGER: Exactly, yeah. We've had several prominent African-American lawmakers who have spoken out against it. In fact just today, there was an open letter that a prominent black legislator released calling it a wolf in sheep's clothing.

And the issue is that they say that it undoes language or it doesn't adequately guarantee the right to an education, and so while that Jim Crow language may be bad, the education issues are important enough that they don't want it removed.

CONAN: Because the constitution as it stands requires the state to provide education for everybody, and they're worried that this new language might not.

YEAGER: Exactly, exactly, in fact this same letter from this lawmaker says that, you know, people may have different interpretations of this language. They may see this provision differently, but it's better to be safe than sorry, as he put it.

CONAN: We have a caller from Alabama on the line. Jordan's(ph) with us from Tuscaloosa.

JORDAN: Hi Neal, I did have my eye on this amendment. It's kind of unfortunate that, you know, it's still an issue. It should obviously have been gotten rid of long ago. But actually I also had my eye on an amendment that's going to just precede it on the ballot in November that's not quite as high-profile, but I think it kind of speaks to why maybe Alabama has, you know, so many of these outdated - so much outdated language and provisions that, you know, are kind of, you know, cropping up a long time after they've really been an issue. It's Amendment Three, that it would - it's kind of boring, but it would define - yeah, it would define a landmark district in the town of Stockton.

And I think, if I understand the language right, it would prevent it from being incorporated into the town or something along those lines. But I think it's a good example of the problems that the constitution, as a whole, has because unlike most other states, there are - most issues in other states would be decided by local laws, local statutes, tax issues, especially.

In Alabama, they have to go to a statewide vote as a constitutional amendment. And we have - I think it's now over 900 amendments that's made to our constitution, the longest in the world. It's longer than the U.S. Constitution, longer than the constitution of India, which, you know, I'm not really familiar with, but I figure it's kind of Byzantine, but...

CONAN: It's a big country. Andrew Yeager, is he right that this is a problem with the Alabama Constitution?

YEAGER: It's one of the ongoing issues with the Alabama Constitution. I don't know the exact number of amendments, but you're definitely in the ballpark there. And that's one of the things that I think is frustrating for voters and lawmakers, public officials in Alabama, is that there are so many things written into Alabama's Constitution that really are local issues that just affect this town or this county.

But the way the system's set up, those things have to go to a statewide vote. So for us here in Birmingham, we see things in our ballot that only pertain to people down in Mobile, on the coast, hundreds of miles away.

CONAN: And...

JORDAN: And I think - I just want to say real quick, I think it's kind of ironic in a state where so many people prize, you know, state rights and local control that actually things would be so centralized, especially when it comes to things like taxes, that, you know, people in one town see their destiny as being controlled by everyone else in the state. You really, you know, don't really know or care about, you know, the local issues that are going to be on the ballot.

CONAN: And is there any move, Andrew Yeager, toward having a constitutional convention to rewrite this and correct it?

YEAGER: There have been ongoing moves off and on. There was a big push about 10 years ago that didn't result in a constitutional convention. That group continues to meet, continues to advocate. And actually, another couple of amendments that'll be on the Alabama ballot deal with rewriting two specific sections of the Alabama Constitution; one dealing with banking, one dealing with corporations.

And so that seems to be the strategy right now for advocates of constitutional reform, is to rewrite the constitution section by section. But, of course, that takes quite a while, and it doesn't have quite the pizzazz of a constitutional convention.

CONAN: Jordan, thanks very much for the phone call.

JORDAN: Thanks for raising the issue.

CONAN: And, Andrew Yeager, thanks very much for your time.

YEAGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Yeager, a reporter for member station WBHM in Birmingham. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And still with us is Jennie Drage Bowser, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. She's on the phone with us from Golden, Colorado.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jason, Jason on the line with us from Columbus.

JASON: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jason. We were just in Columbus last week.

JASON: Oh, wow.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JASON: Well, I'm calling about Ohio state Issue 2, which really would create a citizens' panel to help with - to - state congressional redistricting. It's really aimed to help eliminate gerrymandering. But with all of the presidential money flowing in, there really hasn't been a lot of focus on it. So I'm afraid that it's going to be one of the issues that voters just kind of take their gut feeling and flip a coin for yes or no.

CONAN: I wonder, Jennie Drage Bowser, are there - state Initiative 2 there in Ohio. Are there other good government reforms on the ballot around the country?

BOWSER: Well, you know, that's the only redistricting measure on the ballot this year, and that's, you know, not a new issue to the initiative process. You might remember California over the last several years has, via the initiative, established citizen commissions to draw both the congressional lines and the legislative lines.

I think an interesting feature of the proposal on the table in Ohio this November is that if voters approve this question, one of the first tasks of this new commission will be to go back and redraw the new lines that were just drawn for the next decade.

And, you know, Ohio, as you know, has a majority Republican legislature and a Republican governor. And so I think that Democrats in Ohio might view this as a chance to get sort of a do-over on the next decade's maps and maybe get something that's a little more favorable to their side of the aisle.

As far as other good government issues, you know, there are these two issues on the ballot in Colorado and Montana that are addressing the Citizens United decision. You remember, that came from the U.S. Supreme Court back in 2010. And what it said was, essentially, that corporations and unions have the constitutional right to spend their treasury money on ads for and against candidates and that they can funnel that money through what we now call superPACs and that sort of thing. And that has raised the level of political spending in this year's election cycle quite dramatically.

The measures in Colorado and Montana aren't really a direct aim at Citizens United. But what they do is direct those states' congressional delegations to support an effort to reverse that Supreme Court ruling through amending the U.S. Constitution. So they aren't really binding, and they didn't do anything directly. But they could serve as a valuable organizing tool as reformers in those states go forward.

CONAN: Sarah(ph) in Kansas City emails us: Surprisingly, Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation - 17 cents a pack - even lower than the tobacco-producing states. Go think. Big Tobacco has poured money into defeating attempts to raise the tax in the past, but this might actually pass this time. People are weary of hearing Big Tobacco's excuses, and the tax revenue is dedicated for schools, much like the casino revenues.

And, well, taxes not just in Missouri, but it's a perennial ballot measure.

BOWSER: Absolutely. Yeah. And, you know, the Missouri Proposal B has two things going in favor of it when you look back at this historical data. One, is that it raises cigarette taxes, and the other is that the money primarily benefits education. And when you look at the data on voter behavior over the last two decades on tax increase proposal from the ballot, they tend to reject them in large numbers. About 32 percent of all of the proposed tax increases over the last two decades have been approved, just 32 percent.

But tobacco tax increases are approved at a much higher rate as are tax increases that would benefit education. About 40-some percent of those have been approved by voters. So this question in Missouri this year has both of those historical trends working in its favor.

CONAN: We just have few seconds left. I wonder if there's any one ballot measure you're looking at with particular interest.

BOWSER: You know, what I'm really looking at is not so much one particular measure but the high use of the popular referendum on the ballot this year. The popular referendum is a tool that lets voters veto a new law passed by the legislature. And, you know, we commonly see one or two, maybe three of these on the ballot in any given election. This year, there are 12, and that's really, really notable. They address all sorts of issues, everything from teacher, labor laws, to same-sex marriage, to the maps drawn by redistricting commissions.

CONAN: Well, I have to see how they come out. Jennie Drage Bowser, thank you very much for your time today.

BOWSER: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Jennie Drage Bowser, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Coming up, the - we'll be talking about tasks.

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