If you plan to vote in Massachusetts next week, you might want to take the day off. Eight referenda, covering everything from dog racing to voting rights, are being squeezed onto the ballot in extra-small type. Question 8, dealing with drug treatment, requires six paragraphs of explanation. Question 5, a health-care measure, lists 17 provisions. Thanks to the complexity and sheer volume of the initiatives, some absentee voters have taken up to 45 minutes to complete their ballots.
Welcome to the politics of the 21st century. Fearful of taking controversial positions, many state legislatures are increasingly choosing to punt, asking the voters of their states to make the tough calls. In other cases, a handful of activists simply take over the process, collecting enough signatures to force their pet issues onto the ballot. The result: 24 states voting on more than 70 ballot questions ranging from the trivial to the truly historic.
Leading the historic category is Michigan, where activists have forced onto the ballot a statewide voucher program called Proposal 1. Nearly a half-million residents signed petitions supporting Proposal 1, which would provide $3,300 vouchers to children in public schools where two-thirds of the students fail to graduate. Targeted mainly at failing school systems in cities like Detroit, the vouchers could be used to pay tuition at private, religious schools.
That, not surprisingly, has the National Education Association in a lather. The national teachers union will pour about $1.7 million into a campaign against Proposal 1, and local PTAs have been clogging their schools' mail systems with dire warnings. Not to be outdone, the Michigan Catholic Conference has earmarked about $2 million in support of the voucher plan, mainly for direct mail appeals to the state's 600,000 Catholic families. All told, the two sides will spend a combined $10 million on one of the hardest-fought ballot questions anywhere in the nation this year.
Compared to California's voucher initiative, $10 million looks like a bargain. Proposition 38 would give every school-age child in California, regardless of family income, a voucher worth at least $4,000 to be used at any school they choose. It's the brainchild of Tim Draper, a 42-year-old, high-tech venture capitalist who has poured $20 million of his own money into the effort. But the powerful teachers union in California-which complains that schools are underfunded and teachers underpaid-has managed to match him almost dollar-for-dollar, and public support for the idea seems to be waning. Though polls showed a dead heat this summer, by early October the voucher movement had fallen behind, 52 to 36 percent. (Back in Michigan, by contrast, Proposal 1 is still too close to call.)
Education, of course, is not the only issue dividing voters across the country. Moral issues ranging from abortion to gambling to gay rights are taking up more and more room on state ballots, thanks largely to elected officials who refuse to deal with such sensitive questions. Maine voters will decide whether to legalize video gambling at race tracks, while South Carolinians and South Dakotans will vote on measures to allow a state lottery. The South Carolina vote, in particular, is a bellwether. Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges won election two years ago largely on the strength of his pro-gambling platform. Since then, anti-gambling forces have managed to ban video poker, and the lottery question, which once enjoyed a 2-to-1 lead, is now a toss-up. Gambling opponents in other states will likely follow the South Carolina blueprint if voters there defeat the lottery initiative on Nov. 7.
Colorado voters will decide whether to mandate a 24-hour waiting period before a pregnant woman can have an abortionist kill her unborn child. In Maine, voters will consider a gay-rights measure that would make it illegal to deny jobs or housing based on one's sexual preference. And three states-Oregon, Nebraska, and Nevada-have measures that would restrict homosexual marriage. The most sweeping of these initiatives is the one in Nebraska, which would deny legal recognition to any "domestic partnership" other than a marriage between a man and a woman. Though the vote is considered too close to call, a success in Nebraska would likely lead to similar efforts elsewhere.
Another possible national ballot trend is shaping up in California. Tobacco companies' recent multibillion-dollar settlement with the states has left various interests hungry for a piece of the punitive-damages pie. In Ventura County, Calif., voters will decide whether several private hospitals should have exclusive control of a $261 million settlement-taking the money entirely out of the hands of county officials, who had big plans for the windfall. Look for similar statewide efforts in other parts of the country: One measure has already been written for the ballot in Arkansas, but the state Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to allow the question to go to the voters.
Two other novelties on state ballots this year could inspire copycat initiatives around the country. In Washington, the teachers union wants voters to approve an automatic cost-of-living increase-an issue that was traditionally decided by the legislature. Critics say such an increase would take a $300 million bite out of a state budget already constrained by spending caps, and unions representing other state employees are opposing the measure for unfairly singling out teachers.
Finally, California's Proposition 36 would mandate counseling rather than prison terms for first- and second-time drug offenders. Supporters claim the war on drugs is a failure, and that $4,000 spent on drug counseling is both more effective and more cost-efficient than the $20,000 it takes to lock someone up for a year. (California currently incarcerates some 36,000 drug offenders every year.) Opponents of the initiative argue that the measure would essentially legalize the very drugs that motivate so much of the state's violent crime. And the anti-drug forces are getting help from an unexpected source: Hollywood. Actor Martin Sheen, whose son Charlie nearly died of a drug overdose in 1998, tells voters that the threat of prison time can be a powerful deterrent to potential users.
In a tight presidential election campaign, where voter turnout is crucial, ballot initiatives could tip the electoral balance in a few key states. In Michigan, for instance, the teachers union has planned a massive get-out-the-vote effort to defeat the Proposition 1 question on vouchers. School employees who might otherwise stay home will likely turn out in large numbers to protect their self-interests-and most will no doubt pull the lever for Al Gore while they're there. Likewise, it's difficult to imagine Catholic, pro-voucher voters forgetting George W. Bush is on their side on education.