Through Ballot Measures, Voters To Decide On Issues That Hit Close To Home

Ballots in most states will have proposals on issues like same-sex marriage, medical malpractice and tort reform.

You've seen plenty of catchy political bumper stickers this year, but "Proposal 04-2" probably isn't one of them.

The name doesn't exactly lend itself to a clever slogan, but for Michigan voters, the proposal's passage would mean a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Ten other states will see similar proposals on their ballots next week.

The presidential race may be the main event of this year's election, but it's not the only game in town. In most states, there's a lot more at stake than the presidential or congressional elections, and voters will decide issues that hit much closer to home.

Next Tuesday, residents in 34 states will trump policymakers on more than 160 ballot measures concerning everything from same-sex marriage to medical malpractice to tort reform. Voters in California will have 16 such measures to vote on, which may leave the Golden State's ballot resembling a high school government quiz.

But relax — it's open-book. A quick brush-up on propositions, amendments and initiatives on your local ballot will help you ace the ballot and avoid looking like the slacker who only checked off three boxes out of 25.

The largest number of measures on the ballot this election will appear in the form of legislative referendums, which means that the legislature supports the measure but the state constitution requires that voters approve it. All 50 states allow for such referendums, and there are 101 such measures nationwide this year, including an amendment in Wyoming to limit some damages for medical malpractice lawsuits.

Also popular are ballot initiatives. Since 1898, when South Dakota became the ballot trailblazer, citizens in many states have been able to bypass state legislatures and give the people direct control by proposing a state law or constitutional amendment and leaving it to the popular vote. If a citizen petition drive gains enough support, an initiative is placed on the ballot. If passed, the new law or amendment is almost impossible to repeal. Twenty-four states allow for this process, and 59 initiatives will appear on ballots nationwide this November.

Sounds like a great way to one-up the politicians running the show, right? Supporters champion the initiative process as a means to legislate or reform on matters on which local and state legislators are dragging their feet. They argue that the process increases citizen engagement in the democratic system, keeps them better informed and increases voter turnout.

Yet critics of this bypass route worry about the danger of having citizens check off a simple "yes" or "no" on complex issues without sufficient information. "You get a whole bunch of 30-second ads that may or may not be truthful," said Jennie Bowser, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Often such initiatives amount to unfunded mandates, requiring the legislature to, say, increase after-school programs without indicating how they should pay for them. Critics like the NCSL also say that the process has turned an option intended to serve grassroots local efforts into an inroad for exploitation by special-interest groups.

This election season, ballot issues cover a wide range, including stem-cell research funding, new statewide systems for primary elections, a cigarette tax to finance health care and a state lottery to fund education.

One thing nearly everybody agrees on is that it's easy to be overwhelmed when handed a ballot reminiscent of the verbal portion of the SATs. Groups like the League of Women Voters of California have figured out a way to quell anxiety: offering a copy of the test early. Residents in California and parts of Ohio can visit www.smartvoter.org, punch in their ZIP codes and review their county's ballot online, exactly as it will appear on Election Day.

The League has sponsored a national site, www.dnet.org, which lists your county's candidates, from president to sheriff, as well as an explanation of all ballot measures. If you really want to be an overachiever, contact your state's election committee, usually through the state's secretary of state office, to find out more about a particular measure.

Love them or hate them, ballot measures are unlikely to be eliminated anytime soon. So if you really want to rock the vote, know what's on your ballot before you step inside the booth — and, if necessary, take a cheat sheet.

Noteworthy measures appearing on a ballot near you:

Same-Sex Marriage Bans - Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah

Medicinal Marijuana Use - Montana and Oregon

Medical Malpractice/Tort Reform - California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming

Criminal Justice - California, Hawaii

Election Reform - Colorado, Arizona, California, Washington

Gambling/Lottery - California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington


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