Most of the time in the U.S., we elect politicians to make policy. But every election year, some voters are confronted with making their own policy decisions. Ballot measures ask voters to weigh in directly on issues from the explosive to the mundane.
But direct democracy ain’t what it used to be. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Americans are voting on only 136 ballot measures this November — the second-fewest in a biennial election since 1988.
Of course, it doesn’t take a big number of ballot measures to have a big impact — and some of this year’s ballot measures could significantly change policy if they pass. We’ve identified 28 particularly contentious proposals on ballots across the country on topics from abortion access to voting rights to drugs to the very nature of ballot measures themselves. Here’s what you should know.
The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade thrust abortion to the top of the list of things at stake in this election, as states are now free to ban or protect abortion as they see fit. According to Ballotpedia, six abortion-related measures were or are on the ballot in 2022. Arguably the most significant is in Michigan. The state still has a law on the books from 1931 that bans abortion, but a court has put it on hold pending a final decision from the state Supreme Court. However, Proposal 3 on the Michigan ballot would create a state constitutional right to “reproductive freedom.” So if it passes, the court fight would be moot: Abortion would be legal in Michigan.
Unsurprisingly, the initiative in Michigan has drawn a ton of attention. The campaign has attracted $57 million in donations — more than the state’s governor, attorney-general and secretary-of-state races combined. Supporters of abortion rights have outraised opponents, $40 million to $17 million, and “yes” on Proposal 3 has led in every poll we’ve seen. However, support has fallen recently, which is typical for ballot measures but could be a concern among abortion-rights supporters. For example, the Glengariff Group/Detroit News/WDIV-TV found the question passing 62 percent to 24 percent among likely voters in late September but only 55 percent to 41 percent in late October.
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Meanwhile, Kentucky will vote on a completely opposite ballot measure: Amendment 2 would make explicit that the state constitution does not protect abortion rights. Abortion is currently prohibited in the state, but abortion-rights advocates have challenged the ban in court. If the amendment passes, it will end their efforts to overturn the ban.
An anti-abortion ballot measure may seem like a shoo-in in a state as red as Kentucky, but that’s what people thought about Kansas before it rejected a similar referendum in August. According to modeling from The Upshot at The New York Times, the level of opposition that amendment got in Kansas suggests that it would just narrowly fail in Kentucky. We haven’t seen any polls of the Kentucky measure, but abortion-rights supporters have outraised opponents there, $5.2 million to $952,000.
California and Vermont will also vote to include reproductive rights in their state constitutions, but the stakes are significantly lower. Abortion is already legal and protected in both states. The states are also so liberal that the protections (Proposition 1 in California and Proposal 5 in Vermont) are expected to pass easily. For example, Proposal 5 led 75 percent to 18 percent in a recent University of New Hampshire/WCAX-TV poll. However, in California, Democrats are still spending heavily in favor of Prop 1, perhaps to help Democratic politicians also on the ballot.
In the wake of the 2020 election, several states have tightened their voting laws or expanded access to the polls, and nine ballot measures this year could follow in that tradition. For instance, at least two states could enact stricter voter-ID laws. Arizona’s Proposition 309 would require an unexpired photo ID to vote in person — no exceptions. It would also require those who vote by mail to supply their date of birth and driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Nebraska’s Initiative 432 would also amend the state constitution to require a photo ID to vote. Currently, Nebraska is the only strongly Republican state without a voter-ID law.
On the other end of the spectrum, Michigan’s Proposal 2 would make voting more accessible by implementing nine days of early voting, requiring a ballot drop box for every 15,000 voters in a municipality and providing free postage for absentee ballots. Polls have shown this initiative passing with even more support than the proposal expanding access to abortion. Additionally, Connecticut could also begin using early voting if Question 1 passes. The state is one of only four that does not currently offer any early voting.
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The rules of elections could also change in a few states if other measures pass. Most notably, Question 3 in Nevada will determine whether the state scraps traditional partisan primaries in favor of one in which all candidates run on the same ballot. The top five vote-getters would then advance to a ranked-choice general election. (This is similar to Alaska’s new system.) But Question 3 looks unlikely to pass: Leaders from both parties have come out against it. And in a recent poll from OH Predictive Insights/the Nevada Independent, 44 percent of likely voters said they supported it, and 41 percent said they opposed it. But polls tend to overestimate support for ballot measures. (Voters, it turns out, are leery of changing the status quo.)
Two states are even considering ballot measures that will restrict future ballot measures. Issue 2 in Arkansas would require that citizen-initiated ballot measures and all constitutional amendments get 60 percent support to pass. Arizona’s Proposition 132 would set the same threshold for ballot initiatives that would raise taxes. Also, in the Grand Canyon State, Proposition 128 would allow the state Legislature to repeal or change laws enacted via ballot measure if any part of them is struck down by the Arizona or U.S. Supreme Court. And Proposition 129 would require initiatives to stick to a single subject.
These may sound like esoteric, unimportant changes. But they’re part of a larger pattern of Republican legislatures nationwide trying to combat policies that pass via ballot initiative. For example, in recent years, Arkansas voters raised the minimum wage and legalized medicinal marijuana. And Arizona voters legalized recreational marijuana and increased taxes on the wealthy to fund teacher salaries. In response, Republican legislators put Issue 2, Prop 128, Prop 129 and Prop 132 on the ballot to make it harder for similar initiatives to pass.
Direct democracy has been a game-changer for the movement to legalize pot, particularly in conservative states. Of the 19 states and Washington, D.C., that allow recreational marijuana use, 13 legalized it at the ballot box. And this year, five more states could join the club: Arkansas (where the measure is labeled Issue 4), Maryland (Question 4), Missouri (Amendment 3), North Dakota (Measure 2) and South Dakota (Measure 27).
Maryland may have the best odds of legalizing marijuana. A recent OpinionWorks/Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll found Question 4 leading 63 percent to 25 percent among likely voters. The campaign is tighter in other states: In Arkansas, “yes” on Issue 4 led a recent survey from Hendrix College/Talk Business & Politics just 51 percent to 43 percent. And Amendment 3 in Missouri had 47 percent support and 39 percent opposition in an Emerson College/The Hill poll. We haven’t seen any polling of North Dakota, but it looks like weed will remain illegal in neighboring South Dakota. Measure 27 was losing 51 percent to 40 percent in an October poll from Emerson College/The Hill/KELO-TV.
Colorado could also become the second state to allow the use of psilocybin, a psychedelic substance found in some mushrooms. The campaign to pass Proposition 122 has raised less than $250,000 since mid-July. But opponents, who include elected officials and, interestingly, members of the state’s underground psychedelic community concerned about losing their culture, started running an active campaign only a few weeks ago. An Emerson College/The Hill/KDVR-TV/KWGN-TV poll recently found 43 percent of likely voters in support and 44 percent against the measure.
Another liberal policy that has proven popular at the ballot box, even in red states: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Since 2018, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah have voted to do so, bringing the total number of states that have expanded Medicaid to 38 (plus Washington, D.C.). South Dakota looks like it’s on track to be number 39. The aforementioned Emerson College/The Hill/KELO-TV poll found Amendment D, which would expand Medicaid in the state, passing 51 percent to 22 percent. However, a significant 28 percent were undecided.
Voters in at least two states will decide whether to grant certain public services to undocumented immigrants. In Massachusetts, Question 4 would uphold a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. An average of two recent polls found the measure passing, 54 percent to 39 percent. Similarly, Proposition 308 in Arizona would allow students, regardless of immigration status, to receive in-state tuition at public universities if they have lived in the state for two years and obtained a diploma from a state high school. Voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure to ban this in 2006, but Arizona has gotten more liberal since then. Still, likely voters were split, with 45 percent supporting it and 43 percent opposing it, in a recent OH Predictive Insights survey.
At least two states will also vote on raising their minimum wages: Nevada to $12 per hour and Nebraska to $15 per hour. According to Ballotpedia, states have considered 22 ballot measures to raise the minimum wage since 1998, and all 22 have passed. And these two look like they’ll be no exceptions: The measure in Nebraska, dubbed Initiative 433, led 55 percent to 34 percent in a Data Targeting/Neilan Strategy Group poll from late September. And Nevada’s Question 2 was up 65 percent to 24 percent in an October poll from the University of Nevada, Reno.
At least two more states will weigh in on gun-rights questions — one conservative, one progressive. Amendment 1 in Iowa would enshrine the right to bear arms in the state constitution and subject any gun regulations to “strict scrutiny” by a court. If it passes, the ballot measure could endanger current gun-control laws and discourage the passage of new ones. A poll by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register/Mediacom gave it 58 percent support and 37 percent opposition. Meanwhile, Measure 114 in Oregon would ban high-capacity magazines and make it much harder to buy a gun. The measure has bitterly divided the state’s gun-rights supporters and opponents: A recent poll from Nelson Research found Measure 114 coming up just short, 49 percent to 46 percent.
Finally, no ballot-measure round-up would be complete without mentioning California, the ballot-measure capital of the United States. According to Ballotpedia, the Golden State is home to the two most expensive ballot-measure campaigns of the 2022 cycle, which are both on the same topic. Proposition 26 would legalize sports betting in person at Native American casinos and horse tracks, and Proposition 27 would legalize it online. The two measures are not mutually exclusive, but Native American tribes have spent over $100 million to pass Prop 26 and defeat Prop 27. Meanwhile, online sports-betting companies FanDuel, Bet MGM, Penn Interactive Ventures and DraftKings have contributed more than $100 million combined to pass Prop 27. Non-tribal casinos and gaming organizations have also poured $44 million into defeating Prop 26. Ironically, the three sides seem to have doomed both measures’ chances with their negative TV ads. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, voters oppose Prop 26, 57 percent to 34 percent, and Prop 27, 67 percent to 26 percent. In recent weeks, the “yes” campaigns for both measures have seemingly conceded defeat by scaling back their TV ads.
And this is only a sampling of the ballot measures voters will decide this week. The other 108 may not have major national implications, but they will still make a difference in their states. So before you head to the polls, make sure you research not only the candidates but also the policy questions on your ballot.