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Abortion and Other Social Issues Dominate Ballot Measures This Year

Voters in a record number of states face abortion-related measures, as well as traditional topics including marijuana and minimum wage.

Closeup of a ballot with “Yes” and “No” voting options with the “No” bubble filled in.
Abortion may or may not turn out to be the decisive issue in this fall’s midterms, but it’s definitely a dominant concern when it comes to ballot measures. A total of five states will be voting on abortion rights measures, both for and against. “It’s the highest number of abortion-related ballot measures ever,” says Elizabeth Nash, a state policy associate with the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.

Over the past half-century, the bulk of abortion-related measures sought restrictions or outright bans on the procedure. In 2020, for example, Louisiana voters supported a measure making clear that there was no right to abortion under the state constitution. Colorado voters that year rejected a 22-week ban.

The equation has changed, however, with the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade. A high-profile amendment in Kansas — with voters rejecting language that would have allowed for an abortion ban — has abortion rights supporters not only optimistic about their prospects this fall, but anticipating more ballot initiatives in years to come. “After Kansas, assumptions are shifting about what is possible on this issue,” says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, who directs the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive advocacy group.

Over the past decade or so, ballot initiatives have primarily been a tool used by progressives, who have successfully pushed measures legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage in multiple states. That’s largely in reaction to Republicans controlling a majority of state legislative chambers since the 2010 elections.

“If you see more liberal measures hitting the ballot, it’s because they think the legislature is not going to (address the issue),” says Craig Burnett, a Hofstra University political scientist who studies ballot measures. “If you’re not happy with what the legislature is doing, that’s what direct democracy is there to do.”

Legislators in two states, Arizona and Arkansas, have responded to progressive victories by putting referendums on the November ballot that will make passage of initiatives more difficult in the future. We’ll examine those questions, as well as fiscal-related measures, in a subsequent article.

For now, here’s a look at some of the major social issues on the ballot this fall:


The most consequential abortion measure is in Michigan. The state has a 1931 law banning abortions, but it was blocked last month by a judge’s injunction. An initiative in November would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

This would not only serve to nullify the state’s nearly century-old law, but represent an entirely new approach, Nash says. “We’ve seen state constitutions interpreted as protecting abortion rights, but this is the first time we’re seeing language added to the constitution,” she says.

Passage appears almost certain. A WDIV/Detroit News poll released Wednesday showed that supporters outnumber opponents 62 to 24 percent. The initiative had been rejected by the Michigan Board of State Canvassers on a technicality, but it was ordered onto the ballot last month by the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by a liberal majority.

Voters in California and Vermont are also expected to approve amendments to their state constitutions to protect reproductive rights, including access to contraceptives. These measures started moving prior to the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Amidst the abortion fallout, more are likely to follow in 2024.

In Kentucky — where an abortion ban is now in place — voters will decide whether to approve an amendment stipulating that there is no right to abortion under the state constitution. Such votes have been slam dunks in red states in recent years, passing in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. Supporters of the Kentucky measure are taking no chances, raising about $2 million so far to promote it. As has been happening in other states since the Dobbs decision, Kentucky is now seeing women make up a disproportionate share of newly registered voters.

The other abortion measure this fall is in Montana. It declares that infants born alive after attempted abortion procedures are “legal persons” entitled to medical care. Congress passed a “born alive” law 20 years ago and 18 states have similar measures on the books. The Montana Legislature referred this measure to the ballot. “I believe this decision should be made by not just us here at the capitol but by [the voters] back home,” state Rep. Matt Regier, who sponsored the measure, said last year. “This is a defining issue that goes directly to who we are, and I believe Montanans should have the final say.”


Supporters of minimum wage increases are enjoying a long unbroken streak at the ballot box. Twenty-one statewide measures have passed since the last one was rejected by Montana voters all the way back in 1996.

A measure in Nebraska would raise the hourly minimum wage in stages to $15 by 2026 and subsequently create a cost-of-living adjustment. Nevada’s measure would eliminate inflation adjustments but increase the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2024, while allowing the Legislature to pass wage floors higher than the constitutionally mandated minimum.

Voters in Washington, D.C., will weigh in on the question of minimum wages for tipped workers, such as restaurant servers. Current D.C. law allows employers to pay them $5.35 an hour, rather than the District’s minimum wage of $16.10, under the theory they’ll earn the bulk of their income through tips. D.C. voters approved a measure to abolish the tipped minimum system in 2018, but the city council subsequently overturned it.
A District of Columbia minimum wage ballot measure sign attached to a street sign pole.
A District of Columbia minimum wage ballot measure sign near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.
(Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
Union activity is on the table in two states. Tennessee voters will decide whether to add right-to-work language to the state constitution, barring union membership requirements as a condition of employment. Tennessee was one of the earliest right-to-work states, enacting a statute back in 1947. “Some things are so important and embedded in Tennessee’s economic success story that they should be enshrined in our state constitution,” according to the campaign backing the amendment.

Illinois voters will decide whether to include collective bargaining rights in the state constitution, ensuring that workers can negotiate hours, wages and occupational safety and working conditions through unions or other representatives. The measure would have the effect of barring right-to-work laws. The state’s former Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, created right-to-work zones in Illinois.

Those were banned under legislation signed by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. He backs the current amendment, which will need support from 60 percent of voters to pass.


Last week, President Biden issued pardons for people convicted of marijuana possession at the federal level, while calling for the drug to be reclassified. Voters in 30 states got there ahead of him, legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical purposes via ballot initiatives.

Voters in five states — Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota — will decide this year whether to legalize cannabis use by adults. The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners had blocked a measure in that state, but its action was overturned by the state Supreme Court last month.

South Dakota voters approved a similar measure two years ago, alongside three other states, but it was thrown out by the state Supreme Court last year.

Marijuana measures tend to be popular. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Wednesday showed the Maryland measure is supported by 73 percent of registered voters.

Colorado voters will decide whether psychedelic plants including mescaline, psilocybin and ibogaine should be classified as “natural medicine,” with their possession, use, growth and transport decriminalized for adults 21 or over. Two years ago, Oregon voters approved a measure decriminalizing possession of all drugs in small amounts for personal use.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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