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Spending on Gambling, Health and Tax Measures Breaks Records

There are 129 ballot measures in states this November, with issues ranging from dialysis to term limits.

A sports betting facility in Maryland. California has two measures on the ballot this November that would legalize sports betting online or in person. Spending of nearly a half-billion dollars for and against them has broken all records.
(Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)
If it’s an election year, there must be a big-money fight over dialysis in California. Since 2018, a health-care workers union has sponsored a series of three ballot measures to require higher staffing levels and safety requirements at clinics. After suffering defeats in 2018 and 2020, they’re hoping the third time will prove the charm in November.

The political action committee sponsoring this year’s measure has raised $8 million. That sounds like an impressive amount, until you realize that opponents have raised more than 10 times that much. Total spending on the last two versions easily topped $200 million combined.

Ballot initiatives — a tool meant to give citizens a voice — have turned into an avenue for interest groups to push pet causes. Another pair of ballot measures in California, which would legalize sports betting online or in person, have broken all records with nearly a half-billion dollars spent for and against them.

But initiatives do remain a way for citizens to get their way when legislatures won’t act. “Measures that are making it to the ballot and passing are only doing so because the legislature is not doing what the average voter wants,” says Craig Burnett, a political scientist at Hofstra University.

Voters in South Dakota, for example, will have the chance to approve an expansion of Medicaid, as envisioned under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. A half-dozen states have approved Medicaid expansions through ballot initiatives after legislators balked, most recently Missouri and Oklahoma in 2020. Iowa voters have the chance to affirm gun owners’ rights in the state constitution, while Oregon voters will decide on a gun-control measure that would require criminal background checks and ban large-capacity magazines, among other restrictions. Nevada voters could add an equal rights amendment for women to the state constitution.

In an earlier article, we explored ballot measures related to abortion, marijuana legalization and minimum wage increases and other labor issues. But there are a total of 129 measures on the ballot in 36 states on Nov. 8 and they cover an incredible range of topics.

Voters in five states, for example, will have the chance to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, exception clauses in about 20 states echo language in the 13th Amendment that allows forced prison labor. There’s debate about whether the current abolitionist amendments are purely symbolic or could have real effects on prison practices.

Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont voters will decide the issue. Presumably, most will want to cast a vote against slavery, even as a punishment for crime. Since 2018, similar amendments have passed in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah.

Here’s a summary of some of the other significant ballot issues this year:

Voting and Democracy

The ability to engage effectively in direct democracy has been under increasing threat in recent years. Dozens of states have considered bills to make it harder to push initiatives, including restrictions on signature-gathering or efforts to raise the threshold for the percentage of the vote needed for passage. Last year, Mississippi’s supreme court ruled that the state’s entire initiative process is “unworkable and inoperative.”

State lawmakers have also proven unafraid to overturn laws almost immediately after they’ve been enacted by voters. “Those in power can’t win fairly and so they’re changing the rules in ways that directly undermines the will of the people,” complains Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Arkansas has a referendum that will make life more difficult for initiative sponsors, while Arizona has three. Issue 2 in Arkansas would require that ballot measures received 60 percent of the vote to pass, in place of a simple majority. "It is entirely too easy to amend our state constitution,” said state Rep. David Ray. “We shouldn't amend our constitution in just some sort of willy-nilly fashion."

There’s also a proposed amendment in Arizona requiring 60 percent support for passage, as well as a measure that would make it easier for the Legislature to repeal or amend laws approved through the initiative process, plus one that would limit initiatives to single subjects.

Arizona voters will also consider a measure that would tighten voter identification requirements for both mail and in-person voting. Nebraska, which is one of 15 states left without a requirement to show ID to vote, will have one if Initiative 432 passes. “Showing ID when they go to vote, it’s one of the ways we can strengthen the integrity of our elections,” said Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Voter ID requirements will be loosened if a Michigan amendment passes. Registered voters would be allowed to sign affidavits in lieu of showing a state-issued ID. The measure would also amend the state constitution to require nine days of early voting, ease access to absentee voting and allow voters to deposit their ballots in drop boxes. A measure in Connecticut would allow early voting days to be created by the Legislature.

Two states, Louisiana and Ohio, have measures stipulating that only citizens may vote, countering a practice recently adopted in a few localities. The city council in Washington, D.C., gave initial approval to a non-citizen voting bill this month, but New York City’s law was struck down in June.

Nevada would become the third state, following Maine and Alaska, to allow ranked-choice voting if a proposed amendment passes there in November and again in 2024. As is often the case with ranked-choice voting, officials from both major parties are opposed.


The idea of raising taxes on the rich has an inherent populist appeal, but the perils of applying portions of the tax code to small numbers of individuals might keep a couple of millionaires’ taxes from passing this year.

California’s Proposition 30 would increase taxes for individuals making more than $2 million a year. Their incomes over that threshold would be taxed an additional 1.75 percent, which would raise up to $5 billion a year. Eighty percent of that money would go to subsidizing electric vehicles and charging stations, with the remainder devoted to fighting wildfires.

The measure is being promoted by Lyft, which faces regulatory requirements to move to an electric fleet. The company has spent $45 million pushing the measure. Some environmental groups back it, but the fact that it would provide tremendous subsidies to a particular industry has led Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to come out strongly against it.

Millionaires in Massachusetts could also face a new tax. Any income over $1 million would be taxed an additional 4 percent, with the money going to education and transportation. Supporters say it’s simply a way to make the rich pay their “fair share,” but critics warn that the tax could penalize small business owners or individuals when they collect windfalls from home sales.

It might also prompt top earners to leave the state. “Voters frequently reject taxes on higher earners even if they’re not in that bracket because they understand there are economic impacts, especially post-pandemic, on migration,” says Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the Tax Foundation.

Colorado voters will consider a tax cut. Two years ago, they supported a ballot initiative backed by conservatives that cut the individual income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.55 percent. This year, the same sponsors are proposing a further reduction to 4.4 percent.

Under the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR amendment, state spending growth is limited to rates of inflation and population growth. This year, residents are receiving a record $3.65 billion in refunds, thanks to soaring revenues.

But it’s much better to cut taxes in the first place than issue refunds after the fact, Walczak argues. “Location and investment decisions aren’t made on the basis of possible future refunds,” he says.

Government Operations

Two states are taking up term limit questions, which were a major ballot-measure battleground back in the 1990s. Voters in some states have since rethought term limits, which were meant to diminish the influence of career legislators but have left them weaker players against governors, lobbyists and staff.

Michigan has the strictest limits in the country, allowing politicians to serve only six years in the state House and eight years in the state Senate. A ballot measure would allow them to serve a total of 12 years in the Legislature, allowing them the chance to build up longer tenures in either body. Arkansas voters approved a similar change two years ago, as did California voters a decade ago.

As a sweetener for voters dubious about politicians, the Michigan measure would also impose stricter financial disclosure rules on state officials.

Thirty-six states currently impose some form of term limits on governors, while 15 states have legislative term limits. North Dakota might expand both those lists. An initiative there would create legislative term limits, capping service at eight years in the state House and Senate, while limiting governors to two four-year terms.

All but five states have lieutenant governors. That number will shrink to four if Arizona voters approve a measure to create that office in Phoenix. In Tennessee, the speaker of the state Senate acts as lieutenant governor. If Amendment 2 passes, that person would assume the duties of governor if the governor is incapacitated.

Oregon legislators could lose their jobs if they fail to show up for work. Three times in recent years, Oregon Republican lawmakers have torpedoed Democratic proposals by walking out and denying the majority a quorum. Measure 113 would block legislators from running for re-election if they’ve had unexcused absences.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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