Midterm ballot questions on marijuana, abortion and fracking could reshape state laws

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Voters in dozens of states are getting the chance on Tuesday’s midterm elections to directly vote on issues such as legalizing marijuana, restricting abortion funding and blocking shale operations in certain areas, through a number of ballot questions that could reshape state laws after the mid-terms.

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Ballot questions offer voters the chance to directly influence policy in their state, without waiting for an elected politician to champion the idea in the legislature. These ballot questions — sometimes known as initiatives, referendums, amendments or propositions — usually appear alongside the list of candidates running for public office. Some can be binding, while others simply advise lawmakers on how to handle a social question, or how to clear up a pressing legal issue.

Ballot questions can emerge through citizen petitions, state government proposals or legal challenges to existing laws. A successful ballot question can lead to a new statute or a change to the state constitution.

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Twenty-four states allow citizens to start the initiative process by gathering signatures and taking proposals directly to voters. Thirteen states allow the government to pose questions about policy.

Ballot questions aren’t tied to an individual politician’s fortunes, but they can still become big-money issues that affect major industries in the state. As a result, political action committees (PACs) sometimes spend millions of dollars promoting their side of the ballot question at election time.

Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, says the initiative process is popular wherever it exists.

“It can be misused or manipulated — it can be a little silly at times,” he told The Associated Press. “But on the whole, it ends up being a positive avenue for voters to express themselves.”

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According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the first state to adopt the initiative process was South Dakota in 1898. Since then, 23 other states have followed suit, but none since Mississippi in 1992.

“Overall, the breakdown isn’t changing,” said Patrick Potyondy, the NCSL’s legislative policy specialist. “Whatever state you’re from, you think your process is normal.”

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Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said the initiative process became entrenched in many Western states during the progressive era of the early 1900s.

“It was part of the reaction to political party corruption to allow citizens to directly offer initiatives,” he said. “Texas has always been more skeptical of citizen involvement…. The lawmakers and lobbyists think the deals they cut are preferable to any decision the voters might make.”

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A total of 155 ballot questions are being asked in the 2018 midterm election, according to NCSL.

Here are some of the more controversial questions.

Legal marijuana – North Dakota, Michigan, Missouri and Utah

Four states are asking voters to rule on whether to loosen their laws around marijuana.

Voters in North Dakota and Michigan are being asked to decide whether they want to join nine other states in legalizing recreational marijuana. Both state questions propose setting the minimum legal age at 21.

North Dakota would legalize pot use and possession, but would leave it up to lawmakers to set up regulation and tax policies.

Michigan would allow residents to grow up to 12 plants for personal use, and would levy a 10 per cent sales tax on all cannabis sales.

Missouri and Utah will ask voters about legalizing marijuana for medical use only.

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Missouri will ask voters to choose between three medical marijuana options. Two options would amend the state constitution and give sales taxes on cannabis to veterans programs. The third option would create a new law and send cannabis sales tax to a marijuana research centre.

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Utah’s initiative would legalize the use of medical marijuana through privately owned dispensaries. However, the measure has already lost support after state lawmakers said they had agreed on a compromise plan that would instead allow patients to obtain cannabis from county health departments or a handful of state-approved pharmacies.

Abortion – Alabama, Oregon and West Virginia

Three states have put forward abortion-related ballot initiatives that could wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Alabama, Oregon and West Virginia are asking voters about restricting access to abortion, which is protected by the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade.

Voters in Alabama and West Virginia will decide whether to amend their state constitutions with language that would allow future restrictions on abortion access, if the conservative-majority Supreme Court ever revisits or overturns Roe v. Wade.

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A “yes” on Alabama’s Amendment 2 would change the state’s constitution to support the rights of unborn children, and prevent taxpayer money from paying for Medicaid abortions.

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West Virginia’s Amendment 1 would also block the use of taxpayer money for Medicaid abortions.

Oregon’s Measure 106 asks voters if they want to prohibit public money from being used to fund abortion, except in cases of medical necessity or where required by federal law.

Transgender rights – Massachusetts

Voters in Massachusetts are being asked if they want to repeal a 2016 bill that allows transgender people to use bathrooms, locker rooms and other such places according to the gender with which they identify. The initiative is known as Question 3.

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Supporters of the repeal say women don’t feel safe sharing those intimate spaces with individuals who have male bodies, even if those individuals identify as women. Opponents say the existing legislation is critical to protect transgender people from discrimination.

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Fracking restrictions – Colorado

Colorado’s Proposition 112 is asking voters if they want to severely limit fracking operations on non-federal land.

The proposition would require that new oil and gas wells be at least 2,500 feet (760 metres) from occupied buildings, and would allow local governments to impose even greater setbacks. It would also increase setbacks around areas such as parks, creeks and irrigation canals.

The current law limits fracking to at least 500 feet (150 metres) from homes and 1,000 feet (300 metres) from schools.

Critics say the proposition could cost Colorado tens of billions of dollars in energy-sector investment and tax revenue. They worry that mining operations will close up their fracking operations and move to Wyoming if the proposition passes.

Advocates of the proposition say they’re worried about the health impacts of drilling rigs close to schools and homes.

Housing – California

California is asking 11 ballot questions, including several about housing.

Proposition 1 would allow the state to issue $4 billion in bonds for existing affordable housing programs for low-income residents, veterans and farmworkers. Proposition 2 would let California tap into existing mental-health funds to house homeless people with mental illnesses. Proposition 10 would repeal a law that bans rent control on single-family homes and all housing built after Feb. 1, 1995.

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California is also asking voters if they want to repeal a gas tax hike under Proposition 6 — a move that would reduce funding for highway and road maintenance repairs.

—With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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