Absent the daily sound-byte circus of dueling presidential or congressional campaigns, the run-up to the Nov. 8 off-year elections has still generated considerable partisan rhetoric. In 490 cities across the country, that sort of heat centers on mayoral races-New York's Michael Bloomberg and Detroit's Kwame Kilpatrick among the more prominent incumbents up for reelection.
But items on some state ballots are drawing national attention, including several outside the typical cultural hot-button fare. Proposals to limit or license state spending promise a regional gauge of the country's current comfort with government deficits-an issue that could play big in the 2008 drive for the White House.
Pundits are watching closely for any leftward swing in voting patterns that might coincide with President George W. Bush's declining approval rating. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported that 48 percent of respondents said they would like to see Democrats take control of Congress. Just 39 percent wished for Republicans to maintain control. Precisely how such national trends will play out Nov. 8 depends largely on turnout. And measures regarding pro-life issues or gay marriage-the typical driving force behind a conservative rush to the polls-are present but few.
Social conservatives may enjoy the company of nuanced pro-choicers in supporting an amendment that would require parental notification for minors seeking abortions. If passed, California would become the 31st state to require parent or guardian involvement.
While states such as Minnesota, Mississippi, and Virginia have reported significant decreases in teenage abortion rates since enacting such laws, increased rates in neighboring states suggest parental notification will not work optimally unless enforced nationwide. Attempts to pass federal legislation failed in 1996, 1997, and 1998, but a House-approved bill that would outlaw performing abortions on out-of-state teenagers is scheduled for Senate debate. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes notification legislation, arguing that "such laws are unnecessary for stable and supportive families, and they are ineffective and cruel for unstable, troubled families."
Many Golden State voters will head to the polls to take sides on six initiatives backed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The initiatives include such measures as capping state spending, making it more difficult for public-school teachers to achieve tenure, and reducing the political fundraising power of unions. Mr. Schwarzenegger has campaigned for the measures throughout the state: "We have to reform the system, because the broken system that almost sent us into bankruptcy two years ago is still existing."
Major opposition comes not only from teachers and California's left-of-center legislature, but from gay-rights activists trying to block Mr. Schwarzenegger's aims, at least partly out of spite. Incensed by the former movie star's recent veto of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill, the homosexual lobby is distributing brochures declaring, "It's payback time."
No shortage of conservative voters is likely to plague Texas, where an amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman is under consideration. The Lone Star State missed the bandwagon of a year ago when 11 out of 11 such proposed amendments passed-most with considerable majorities.
Texas is the only state considering a gay-marriage ban this November, but is expected to become the 19th state to successfully enact one. The proposed amendment also bars the recognition of "any legal status identical or similar to marriage," heading off attempts at civil unions.
Opponents of the ban call it unnecessary, pointing to an existing Texas law that already declares void a marriage or similar arrangement between same-sex partners. But supporters argue the repetition is needed to prevent judges from reading a right to gay marriage into the state constitution-precisely what transpired in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is now legal.
Even state amendments are not bulletproof, however. This past May, a federal judge in Nebraska overruled the state's overwhelmingly (70 percent) approved marriage amendment, pontificating that it robbed citizens of basic rights. That ruling is under appeal.
When state legislators passed a gay-rights law earlier this year, conservatives rallied, collecting enough signatures to force a statewide vote on the issue. The law bars discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, credit, housing, public accommodations, and education. It defines sexual orientation as "a person's actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity or expression"-language explicitly intended to include transsexuals and cross-dressers.
The use of "gender identity" in gay-rights legislation has grown increasingly popular in recent years, launching controversy over proper use of public restrooms (see "Gender blender," June 18, 2005). Opponents of Maine's legislation argue that men dressed in drag would be legally protected in using women's bathrooms. Furthermore, the law would likely prohibit the firing of someone who was hired as a man but showed up for work wearing lipstick and a skirt.
Minnesota, Rhode Island, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia include "gender identity" within their gay-rights laws. Authorities report extremely rare instances of transgender discrimination claims, suggesting the hyped-up importance of such language is vastly overblown.
Despite lacking highly charged social issues, the Evergreen State ballot contains two initiatives sure to draw voters locally and attention nationally.
The first extends the state's Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in public places. I-901 would expand the Act's definition of "public places" to include bars, bowling alleys, casinos, foster homes, 75 percent of hotel rooms, and areas within 25 feet of doors to smoke-free buildings. All tribal lands, though, would remain exempt from the Act. Proponents of the measure argue that everyone has the right to breathe clean indoor air in all these places. Opponents emphasize rights of private property and ask why voluntarily present customers cannot choose to expose themselves to secondhand smoke if they wish.
The second initiative would cap noneconomic medical malpractice damages at $350,000 in an effort to combat soaring awards from malpractice lawsuits. The cap would not apply to medical costs, lost income, prescription drugs, and other direct damages.
More than half of all doctors in Washington have referred patients away for services they no longer offer due to high insurance premiums. Claims for "pain and suffering" have received huge awards, with personal injury lawyers who receive a percentage of the award often the driving force. I-330 would limit attorney fees via a sliding scale.
Campaigns for and against the measure have been well-financed, with doctors and lawyers raising well beyond $10 million for it and another initiative that would punish multi-malpractice offenders.
A similar battle waged in Florida last year generated $37 million in contributions for three medical malpractice measures. All three provisions passed but hardly ended the debate. "It didn't resolve anything," Florida state Rep. Dan Gelber told the Seattle Times. "It really was just a big food fight between powerful special interests." Washington will not likely prove any different.
An Ohio ballot measure proposes a drastic overhaul of congressional district lines, calling for the creation of 10 competitive districts by 2008. Current configuration packs Democrats overwhelmingly into six districts, while Republicans carry majorities in 12 districts-this in a state with a razor-thin political dividing line, as the 2004 presidential election showed.
California voters are considering similar redistricting changes, but for opposite political reasons: Republicans in the Democrat-controlled state hope new boundary lines will tighten competition.
Though Florida voters will stay home this month, the Sunshine State promises a head start to the hot-button issue of next year's election. The political action committee Citizens for Science and Ethics aims to place on the ballot a measure barring state funding of embryonic stem-cell research.