Most of the media attention in this election year is focused, understandably, on the presidential race. But in 37 states, voters will also face at least one -- and in many cases, quite a few -- ballot questions.
Overall, voters will see more ballot measures in 2012: 174 total. That's up from 159 in 2010, 153 in 2008 and it marks the highest total since 204 in 2006, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute (IRI) at the University of Southern California.
Fewer initiatives, however, were placed on the ballot by citizens. The 44 citizen-initiated measures in November "are very low compared to the average of about 62 in most even-year November elections over the previous decade," said Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks ballot measures for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I think the numbers are low primarily because of the economy. It's harder to raise the funds necessary to qualify for the ballot. Given that, I expect the numbers to begin to rise as the economy improves. This is just a dip, not the 'new normal.'"
Bowser is also struck by an increase in "popular referenda." The method, currently available in 23 states, is essentially a "people's veto" of something a legislature has already passed. There are 12 on ballots this year, much higher than the two or three in a typical election cycle. Bowser sees their popularity as "a symptom of the polarization in American politics and government. It's the tug back in the political tug-of-war."
Bowser added that several states are expecting record spending on ballot measures this year, including California, Oregon and Michigan.
Here is a rundown of the ballot issues that voters will face on Election Day.
Same-sex marriage: This could be a landmark year for gay marriage. Historically, states have voted on, and usually passed, measures to ban it. "All state-level victories for same-sex marriage have come from courts or legislatures," according to the IRI. "Voters have consistently voted to restrict marriage to one man and one woman when given the choice, with 30 of 31 measures banning gay marriage having passed to date."
But growing support for same-sex marriage has begun to change the equation. This year, Maine Question 1 would legalize it (the initiative led by roughly 10 points in two recent polls). In addition, voters will consider two measures -- Maryland Question 6 and Washington state R-74 -- to determine whether legalization bills passed by their legislatures will stand. Maryland supporters of same-sex marriage have double-digit leads in the polls, while backers in Washington state are also up by 10 points in a recent Elway poll, though below the crucial 50 percent threshold.
Alternatively, a more traditional measure to ban same-sex marriage is on the ballot in Minnesota. Opponents of gay marriage led by five points in a recent Minnesota Star Tribune poll.
Marijuana: Six states will have marijuana-related measures on the ballot in November -- three to legalize recreational use (Colorado's Amendment 64, Oregon's Measure 80 and Washington state's I-502) and three on medical marijuana (Massachusetts Question 3, Montana IR-124 and Arkansas Issue 5).
Among the three more far-reaching measures, the Colorado and Washington state measures are in stronger shape with voters. A Denver Post poll found Colorado voters 51 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed, while the Washington state measure was ahead, 50 percent to 38 percent.
Among the medical marijuana measures, Massachusetts' was ahead easily (60 percent to 27 percent), while Montana's, which would keep in place a more restrictive law than the one initially passed by voters, is leading, 44 percent to 31 percent.
Health care: Five measures -- Alabama Amendment 6, Florida Amendment 1, Missouri Proposition E, Montana LR-122 and Wyoming Amendment A -- will weigh measures to prohibit mandatory participation in President Obama's health-care law.
Taxes: Most of the tax initiatives involve small-bore changes, but some are more significant.
California Proposition 30, sponsored by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, would increase the income tax on earnings over $250,000 for seven years and increase the sales tax by 0.25 percent for four years. A competing measure, California Proposition 38, would raise all income taxes and dedicate 60 percent of the revenue to education. Brown's measure is ahead, 54 percent to 37 percent in a recent Los Angeles Times poll, while Proposition 38 trails, 34 percent to 52 percent.
Similarly, Arizona Proposition 204 would make permanent an existing, temporary sales tax increase while mandating yearly increases in state education spending; South Dakota Initiated Measure 15 would increase the state sales tax in order to fund education and health care (the measure is ahead by double digits in a recent poll); and Missouri Proposition B would hike tobacco taxes by a dollar per pack, with revenue directed to health education.
As for tax-limitation measures, Oregon Measure 84 would get rid of inheritance taxes, Oklahoma Question 758 would limit property tax growth, Michigan Proposal 5 and Washington state Initiative 1185 would require a two-thirds vote from their legislatures to enact new taxes, and New Hampshire Question 2 would prohibit new income taxes.
Affirmative action and race: Oklahoma Question 759 would prohibit discrimination or preferences based on race, sex, ethnicity and national origin. Similar measures have previously passed in Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington, according to the IRI.
Meanwhile, Alabama Amendment 4 would remove obsolete constitutional references to segregation of schools by race and repeal poll taxes.
Immigration: Maryland Question 4 would repeal a Legislature-passed law that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities if they attended high school in the state and their parents paid taxes. The pro-immigration side is easily ahead in the polls.
Meanwhile, Montana LR-121 would deny services to illegal immigrants. It is ahead by a wide margin in a Lee Newspapers poll.
Labor unions: Unionization is big this year, with both sides making plays for public support. California Proposition 32 would prohibit union dues from being used for political purposes without the explicit authorization of members. It trailed in a recent Los Angeles Times poll, 36 percent to 44 percent. Similar measures have failed twice before in California.
Michigan Proposal 2 would create a new constitutional right to collective bargaining. The measure had a double-digit lead in a recent Detroit News poll, though it lost some ground compared to earlier in the year. And Alabama Amendment 7 would clarify that votes of employee representation by secret ballot is "fundamental."
Education: Two states are putting major changes for teachers and teacher unions on the ballot. Idaho Propositions 1, 2 and 3 would limit collective bargaining, institute performance-based pay and modify school district funding, respectively. South Dakota Referred Law 16 would create a program for teacher merit bonuses, mandate a uniform teacher and principal evaluation system, and eliminate state requirements for teacher tenure.
Separately, pro-charter school measures are on the ballot in Georgia and Washington state.
Abortion: Florida Amendment 6 would bar public funds from being used to pay for abortion or for health benefits that include abortion coverage. The prohibition would not apply in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is endangered.
Montana LR-120 would require parental notification before a minor could get an abortion. It also provides for judicial waivers of notification. A Montana court struck down a similar law in 1999. A Lee Newspapers poll found the measure ahead, 65 percent to 28 percent.
Criminal justice: It's a strictly Golden State affair: California Proposition 34 would abolish capital punishment, instead commuting convicted criminals to life in prison without parole. A recent Field Poll found a closely divided electorate -- 42 percent in favor, 45 percent against. Proposition 35 would increase criminal penalties for human trafficking (early polling showed the measure in strong shape). And Proposition 36 would revise the state's "three strikes" sentencing law to impose life sentences only when a new felony conviction is serious or violent. It is up by a 3-to-1 margin in the recent Los Angeles Times poll.
Assisted suicide: Massachusetts Question 2 would allow terminally ill patients to receive a lethal injection. It received 64 percent support in a recent Suffolk University poll.
Energy and environment: Michigan Proposal 3 would mandate that a quarter of the state's electricity be generated by renewable energy by 2025. Support for the measure was just under 50 percent in a Detroit News poll.
Alabama Amendment 1 asks voters to approve a long-term reauthorization of the Forever Wild program, which uses 10 percent of investment interest on oil and gas royalties to purchase landholdings through voluntary sales. The land is used for nature preserves, hunting areas, state parks and recreational purposes.
Arizona Proposition 120 would declare state sovereignty and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within the state's boundaries. Critics say it could weaken the protections of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
California Proposition 39 would change the way multistate businesses calculate their state taxable income, with some having to pay additional corporate income taxes. About half of the increased tax revenue over the next five years would be earmarked for energy efficiency and alternative energy projects. A Field Poll had the measure leading, 46 percent to 39 percent.
Transportation: Michigan Proposal 6 addresses the proposed construction of a new $2.1 billion Canadian-financed bridge over the Detroit River. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, along with business and labor groups, argue that an additional bridge is needed to ensure the smooth flow of international commerce, while also promoting construction jobs in the shorter term. The owners of the existing Ambassador Bridge have spent millions of dollars to put the proposal to a statewide vote. As it stands, almost 50 percent of the state supports building a new bridge, according to a Detroit News poll.
Meanwhile, in Arkansas, voters will weigh a 10-year, half-cent sales tax increase that would fund road upgrades throughout the state.
Eminent Domain: Virginia Question 2 will ask voters to consider restrictions on eminent domain, limiting such powers to benefit public uses rather than private projects. The measure is part of the continuing fallout from the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London.
Guns: Louisiana Amendment 2 asks, "Do you support an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Louisiana to provide that the right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental right and any restriction of that right requires the highest standard of review by a court?"
Hunting and animal issues: Four states -- Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska and Wyoming -- have measures asking voters whether hunting and fishing rights should be enshrined in their state constitution, a proposal backed by the National Rifle Association, among others.
Meanwhile, North Dakota voters will weigh whether it should be a class C felony for someone to maliciously and intentionally harm a dog, cat or horse. And Oregon Measure 81 would prohibit commercial, non-tribal fishing with gillnets in inland waters but allow the use of seine nets.
Electoral reform: Minnesota voters will be asked whether the state should require all voters to present a valid photo identification card to vote. A recent Minnesota Star Tribune poll shows the measure at 52 percent, a smaller lead than it previously enjoyed.
Arizona Proposition 121 would create an open-primary system with the two candidates receiving the most votes advancing to the general election. Ohio Issue 2 would create a commission to draw legislative and congressional district lines. But California Proposition 40 would prevent the newly drawn state Senate districts -- devised by a nonpartisan commission -- from taking effect unless approved by the voters at the next statewide election.
Nebraska Amendment 3 would change the legislative term limit from two to three consecutive terms.
Colorado Amendment 65 would instruct the Colorado congressional delegation to propose and support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allows Congress and the states to limit campaign contributions and spending.
And South Carolina voters will be asked whether to permit the joint election of the governor and lieutenant governor.
Budget reform: California Proposition 31 would establish a two-year state budget cycle; prohibit the Legislature from creating expenditures of more than $25 million unless offsetting revenues or spending cuts are identified; permit the governor to cut the budget unilaterally during declared fiscal emergencies if the Legislature fails to act; require performance reviews of all state programs and performance goals in state and local budgets; and require publication of all bills at least three days prior to legislative vote. The measure was behind by a roughly 2-to-1 margin in a recent Field Poll, but there is a large undecided population.
South Dakota Constitutional Amendment P would clarify the rules for a balanced state budget. The constitution currently restricts the state from incurring debt, but it does not expressly require the state to have a balanced budget.
Miscellaneous: North Dakota will ask voters whether smoking should be prohibited in public places and workplaces.
California Proposition 37 would require labeling of genetically engineered foods. The measure is up by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll.
Florida Amendment 8 would provide that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding or other support, except as required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It would also delete the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination.
Michigan Proposal 1 would endorse Gov. Snyder's emergency manager law for local governments. The Detroit News poll found support dropping from 53 percent to 36 percent in the most recent survey.
And Montana Initiative 166 would charge Montana elected and appointed officials, state and federal, with "implementing a policy that corporations are not human beings with constitutional rights."