Presidential Vote May Outshine State Ballot Initiatives

Along with voting for the next president, people across the country are deciding on a long list of state ballot initiatives. The issues range from same-sex marriage to marijuana regulation and taxation. Steve Inskeep talks to Josh Goodman, a staff writer for the Pew Center on the States, about some of the state issues getting the most attention.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many Americans will spend extra time at the polls today, not just choosing candidates but also making law. They will vote on a variety of state ballot initiatives, which Josh Goodman of the Pew Center on the States is tracking.

I've printed out here a list of ballot initiatives in various states. And it's more than a page long. It's a ridiculous number. The Oregon Gillnet Fishing Initiative, the Utah Military Property Tax Exemption Amendment, Constitutional Amendment B 2012. We could go on for quite some time. This is quite a list.

JOSH GOODMAN: Yeah. There are close to 175 measures on the ballot this year. What makes ballot measures interesting is that voters get to weigh in on just about every topic that candidates have been debating for months now.

INSKEEP: OK. Some of these are rather in the weeds, as amendments go. Some of them touch on hot-button issues, including a number that involve gay marriage. What's being decided?

GOODMAN: There are four states voting on gay marriage. They are Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota. And three of those - Maine, Maryland and Washington - the vote actually would allow gay marriage if it passes, whereas Minnesota's voting on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

Maine is a particularly interesting state because voters there in 2009 repealed gay marriage. The legislature had put it into law and voters overturned it at the ballot. And so there's been a lot of discussion of whether public sentiment on gay marriage has changed. And Maine is a place where you sort of have this comparison from just three years ago, where you'll really be able to see whether voters have changed their mind.

INSKEEP: OK. What about other issues? I know medical marijuana gets put on a lot of these ballot issues. What about 2012?

GOODMAN: 2012 is a little bit different. Medial marijuana had a lot of success at the polls over the years, and now three states - Colorado, Oregon and Washington - are sort of talking about going a step further. They have measures that would legalize recreational marijuana use or general marijuana possession. And there's...

INSKEEP: And just decriminalize marijuana altogether? Is that what these measures would do?

GOODMAN: That is what at least they're intended to do. The actual implementation, how that would look, is very much an open question, because you still have federal law. And so what exactly would play out isn't clear. But that is the concept, and it will be a test of whether voters approve of that idea.

INSKEEP: Are there a lot of essentially economic or business measures that get fought over in ballot initiatives?

GOODMAN: There are a lot of them. Traditionally, when you think about ballot measures, some of the most famous classic ones have been to cut taxes or limit taxes. But this year, a number of states, including California but also Arizona, Arkansas, South Dakota, are voting on measures that would actually increase taxes.

INSKEEP: And there's public support for that?

GOODMAN: It's certainly not a slam dunk to get voters to raise their own taxes. But the sort of surprising situation we've seen over the last couple of years is - especially in legislatures where conservatives have a fair amount of power - it becomes potentially easier to raise taxes on the ballot than it does through the legislative process.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Deb Elliott reported a few days ago on the measure in Alabama, which was rejected to change the constitution a few years ago. And here they are voting on that again. What does it do?

GOODMAN: Alabama is voting on a measure to remove sort of segregationist-era language from its constitution. So it's kind of a blast from the past that there is this language still in the Alabama Constitution. It doesn't have any tangible effect, because you have federal law and the federal Constitution. And, of course, segregation isn't allowed. But it's sort of this symbolic question. Do we want to take this language out of our constitution?

INSKEEP: Josh Goodman is a staff writer for Stateline, which is part of the Pew Center on the States. Thanks for coming by.

GOODMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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