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Taking a Look at the Statewide Ballot Questions

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

In addition to electing people in the midterm elections, voters also say yes or no to ballot questions.

This year's midterms are unusually heated as the result of partisan divisions, so it might come as a surprise that the number of ballot measures facing voters is one of the lowest in the last 22 years. According to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan and nonprofit online encyclopedia, the number of ballot questions this year is the second lowest among general and midterm elections since 2000.

Voters are deciding 140 ballot questions this year. Only in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in shrinking the number of ballot measures to 129, was the total lower.

A closer look at the numbers shows something even more striking. Ballot questions come in two forms: citizen-generated ballot measures that require gathering enough signatures to put something on the ballot and referred measures that are placed on the ballot by state or local lawmakers. The number of ballot questions created by citizens this year, 30, is the lowest in the last 22 years.

Ballot Question Restrictions

Coming up with an answer for the low numbers this year is a matter of speculation. The lingering pandemic may have still played a role, but there is also evidence that some lawmakers are starting to think ballot questions should be restricted. In fact, some have even created their own ballot questions asking voters to approve ballot-question restrictions:

  • Proposition 128 in Arizona would allow the legislature to amend or repeal ballot measures that are approved by voters if a state or federal court rules them invalid.
  • Proposition 132 in Arizona requires any measure that raises taxes to have a three-fifths majority instead of a simple majority to pass.
  • Arkansas voters are weighing Issue 2, which would require a three-fifths majority to approve any constitutional amendments on future ballots.

Abortion, Pot, and Slavery

Among the remaining topics that appear on this year's statewide ballot measures, abortion holds the top position. There are six of them, the most ever, split evenly between those seeking to establish "reproductive freedom" rights and those making it harder to get abortions.

One of these ballot questions, a Kansas measure to prohibit making abortion a constitutional right, was rejected by voters on Aug. 2. (Kansas is one of several states that vote on ballot measures on dates other than a federal election date.)

Voters in Kentucky and Montana are also considering ballot questions to create abortion limitations. In California, Michigan, and Vermont, ballot questions seek voter approval to make abortion a state constitutional right.

Here is a summary of other common topics addressed by statewide ballot questions this year:

  • Five states — Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota — have ballot questions seeking approval of recreational marijuana.
  • Voters in seven states will consider questions about changing voting policies. Nevadans can choose to make their state the third to adopt ranked-choice voting. Ballot questions in Connecticut and Michigan seek to strengthen early voting. In Arizona and Nebraska, voters will decide whether the state should toughen its voter identification requirements.
  • An unusual topic, slavery, is on the ballot in five states. Specifically, the issue deals with repealing language from state constitutions that allows enslavement or servitude as punishment for crimes. It may sound like a simple effort to purge outdated laws from the books, but passage could allow prisoners to challenge forced prison labor.

Following the Money

Of course, various groups spend money seeking to convince voters to vote yes or no as the election unfolds. So, what ballot questions are attracting the most money from those interested parties?

This year, the winners are clear. They are two competing measures, Proposition 26 and Proposition 27, that would legalize sports betting in California. It's complicated, but essentially Native American tribes back Prop 26, and the gambling industry's big rollers back Prop 27.

We won't wade into the differences between the two, but as of Oct. 26, supporters and opponents spent a total of $568 million seeking to convince voters that one or the other is superior, or that they both deserve the thumbs down.

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