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From cradle to grave

National | State voter initiatives settled diverse issues

Issue: "Midterm elections 1998," Nov. 14, 1998

Voters in 40 states cast ballots on nearly 250 different statewide referenda on Nov. 3, deciding issues that ranged, literally, from birth to marriage to death.

On the issue of birth, residents of Colorado and Washington decided they didn't want any restrictions on abortions-even the partial-birth variety, which the Washington referendum specifically defined as infanticide. Although abortion opponents complained of being heavily outspent by feminist and medical groups, the Colorado measure was actually expected to pass. Strong interest in the governor's race-where Democrat Gail Schoettler lost by fewer than 5,000 votes-may have increased pro-abortion turnout and defeated the initiative.

South Carolinians amended their state constitution to remove an archaic prohibition against interracial marriage. In Hawaii and Alaska, meanwhile, voters also were asked to decide on legal marriages-not between different races, but between the same sex. In both places they said no to homosexual marriage, rendering moot a long-anticipated decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court.

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And in Michigan, voters rejected an attempt to transform Jack Kevorkian into a law-abiding citizen. They defeated a measure that would have made it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients. That left Oregon as the only state where doctor-assisted suicide has been approved.

Although it blazed new trails on the suicide issue, Oregon last week followed California's lead in failing to restrict political fundraising by unions. The so-called "paycheck protection" movement, which would have required unions to get written permission from members before deducting political donations from their paychecks, now looks dead after two high-profile defeats.

The drug legalization movement, on the other hand, got a big boost when voters in four states approved the use of medical marijuana. Alaska voters passed an even broader initiative that will shield users from most state and local laws against possession of the drug.

The gambling industry got a shot in the one-arm bandits in Missouri and California. Show-me state voters approved a constitutional change to accommodate floating casinos that had been operating illegally. In 1994, Missouri approved a measure allowing slot machines and other games of chance to operate on boats upon the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Unsatisfied, casino operators dredged river-fed moats off the main channels of the rivers to float their non-navigable "boats." Citizens sued and the Supreme Court last year ruled the boats in moats illegal. Passage of last week's measure in Missouri legalizes the practice. In California, pro- and anti-gambling forces wagered $100 million over Indian gaming. The measure allows about 40 tribes with casinos to keep using the popular and lucrative video slot machines that Gov. Pete Wilson had contended are illegal. Tribes do not pay state and local taxes and are subject to different regulations than other gambling interests because of their sovereign status.

Teachers' unions in Colorado helped defeat an education-choice initiative, Amendment 17. The proposal would have granted tax credits to families of Christian- and other private-school students, funded by the savings that result from those students' not attending public schools. Supporters and opponents pumped $2.4 million into the campaign; the biggest single chunk of cash, $635,000, came from the National Education Association, which vehemently opposed the reform effort.

Perhaps the referendum with the greatest national implications appeared in Washington, where voters approved a measure banning the use of race and gender as categories in government hiring, public contracts, and college admissions. The Washington measure was modeled on California's successful Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in that state two years ago. With two major wins under their belt, opponents of affirmative action are expected to export their model to several other states in time for the 2000 elections.

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