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Marijuana, Marriage, Gambling and Taxes Are Top Ballot Initiatives to Watch

November 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures about the top state ballot measures to be decided in the 2012 election. Bowser says the polarized political atmosphere could be one reason why there are more initiatives at stake today than any other presidential election in the last 20 years.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The race for the White House is not the only thing on the minds of voters. In many places not competitive at the presidential level, state measures about issues ranging from drugs and marriage to taxes and gambling are getting a lot of attention.

To help us sort through some of these hot questions on ballots, we are joined now by Jennie Bowser. She’s a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And we thank you for being with us.

Let me just ask you to start out by helping us, reminding us what is the difference between a referendum, a ballot initiative and so forth.

JENNIE BOWSER, National Conference of State Legislatures: Sure. These can be hard to sort out. And what appears on your ballot will vary depending on what state you live in.

A good umbrella term to describe all of these measures is ballot measure. That’s really including all the various types. And those types would be then the legislative referendum. And that’s something that the legislature has put on the ballot for voters to consider.

And then, in 24 states, there’s a process called the initiative. And this allows citizens to draft a proposed law or constitutional amendment, circulate it for signatures on a petition. And if they get enough signatures, it goes for a popular vote on the ballot. There are 42 of those this year.

And then we have a third category called the popular referendum. This one is a little bit hard to wrap your head around. But, basically, what it is, is a chance for voters to weigh in on something that the legislature has recently passed.

So voters can either approve the legislature’s new law or they can veto it. And if they veto it, that new law will never take effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, you were saying that are more referenda on ballots this year than in the recent past.

JENNIE BOWSER: Sure. This year, we have 12 popular referenda. That’s the people’s veto where the voters can veto something the legislature has done.

It’s typical in an even-year November election to see three, maybe four of those. Six would be a lot. And you have to go all the way back to the 1920s to find another election when there were 12 on the single ballot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why do you think that is?

JENNIE BOWSER: Well, you know, I think it’s symptomatic of the political polarization that we have in America right now. These tend to be issues that have very strong partisan appeal. So, they’re things like same-sex marriage or dealing with public employee labor unions, things like that.

And so the legislature takes action that is highly partisan and the opponents sort of push back at the legislature’s action through that popular referendum. And, really, it’s kind of the same thing that we saw with the increased use of the recall over the last two years in places like Wisconsin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, tell us about those states that are looking at gay marriage, the issue of same-sex marriage on the ballot. What is it, four different states?

JENNIE BOWSER: Yes. It’s four states this year.

In Maine, they have a citizen initiative that would legalize same-sex marriage. And this one is really important to watch because no states’ voters have ever been asked to legalize same-sex marriage before; 32 states have voted on restricting same-sex marriage, but no state has voted on legalizing it.

In Maryland and Washington, they have popular referenda. So this is that process I was talking about. In these two states, the legislatures passed bills that legalize same-sex marriage. And opponents have pushed back by qualifying a popular referendum to the ballot.

So, if voters say yes in Maryland and Washington tomorrow, they’re agreeing with the legislature that same-sex marriage should be legalized in their state. If they say no, these new bills will not take effect.

And then, finally, we have Minnesota. And they have the same kind of question that we have seen in so many states over the last decade-and-a-half. Let’s define marriage as between one man and one woman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you also have several tax measures that are on the ballot, measures having to do with marijuana?

JENNIE BOWSER: Yes. Marijuana is on the ballot in six states this year. Here in Colorado and then also in Oregon and Washington, there are measures that would legalize the sale and use of marijuana for anybody age 21 or over. This is not medical marijuana. This is essentially legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

And then, in three other states, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Montana, they’re voting on medical marijuana tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we also want to bring up quickly California, where there are a number of issues on the ballot having to do with taxes and a number of other topics.

JENNIE BOWSER: California is really ground zero for the initiative process. They tend to have more initiatives than any other state. They have 11 this year, including two competing measures that would increase taxes in different ways to fund education and help balance the state budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Jennie Bowser, we also know that health care is on the ballot. Remind us where and what that would mean if those were to pass.

JENNIE BOWSER: Sure.

There are five states that have votes on the Affordable Care Act this year. In Missouri, it’s a bill that would prohibit the state from setting up a health insurance exchange.

In the other four states, it’s a broader measure that attempts to block really implementation of the Affordable Care Act. It sets up the right to have private insurance as a constitutional right in the state and prohibits the state from requiring anybody to buy insurance or penalizing anybody for failing to buy insurance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, what are the polls showing on those? Do we know much about how they — the standing?

JENNIE BOWSER: Well, you know, I have not checked the polls on those recently, but that issue has been on the ballot five times before in the last two years. And in each case, voters have approved it by a very wide margin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennie Bowser with the National Conference of State Legislatures, thank you very much.

JENNIE BOWSER: Thanks so much for having me.

GWEN IFILL: We have posted a detailed analysis of the major ballot initiatives. You can read that on our Politics page, where you will also find a slide show of the dramatic images from the last days of the campaign.