On Election Day, after John and Jane Q. Public have cast their ballots for local, state and national candidates, they'll face another conundrum in the voting booth: Statewide initiatives. This year, 42 states offer a potpourri of referenda on topics ranging from gay rights to gun control to school vouchers and a few of the most controversial promise to make national headlines.
Ballot initiatives, or propositions, have been around since 1902, when the Supreme Court upheld the rights of voters to institute change outside the corridors of legislative power. Sometimes, it's a question of checks and balances: If a state legislature wants to change the Constitution, they must present the modification, in the form of a referendum, to the voters for passage. In 24 (mostly western) states, however, voters who collect enough signatures are able to stick their initiative on the ballot and then campaign like mad to get it passed.
But while the history of ballot initiatives remains grounded in the grass roots, many recent propositions have originated or gained unstoppable momentum from the rich and powerful. In California, for example, it takes at least $1 million to secure an initiative's spot on a ballot, which means special-interest groups like the teachers' unions (which fight tooth and nail to defeat voucher initiatives), as well as wealthy individuals like Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen (who spent $8 million to garner support for public funding of a new Seattle football stadium), have become a significant force behind the seemingly endless array of propositions littering state ballots nationwide.
Here, gleaned from the headlines, are a few of the most controversial or just plain fascinating ballot measures across the country:
1. Interracial marriage: ALABAMA voters will decide whether to strike a ban on interracial marriages from the state constitution. This is a procedural vote, since the law has not been enforced for many years, but the legislature must retain constituent approval before officially striking down the law. Political analysts predict the effort will pass but that anti-civil rights forces will push the opposing tally to near 35 percent.
2. Gay and lesbian themes in schools: OREGON could vote to prohibit any discussion in public schools that suggests homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle. One of many gay and lesbian-oriented initiatives on Tuesday's ballots, Oregon's Measure 9 is notable for its thoroughness: If passed, it would bar public school teachers from "instruction encouraging, promoting or sanctioning homosexual or bisexual behaviors." The measure is widely expected to pass.
3. Drug treatment vs. incarceration: CALIFORNIA's Proposition 36 would essentially reform the state's attitude toward nonviolent drug offenders, offering rehabilitation in lieu of jail time. This initiative is gaining widespread support from prisoners'-rights advocates and opponents of the so-called "war on drugs" who believe the current prison culture does nothing to address the cycle of drug addiction. This initiative mirrors similar drug-policy reform efforts in Massachusetts, Oregon and Utah.
4. Bilingual education: ARIZONA may approve an end to bilingual education in public schools. Proposition 203 is the handiwork of Ron Unz, who spearheaded the successful 1998 effort in California to pass a similar initiative.
5. Right to die: MAINE voters are considered a bellwether this year; their decision on initiative Question One, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide, will help to determine the national course of action for advocates of euthanasia. A similar measure was passed twice in Oregon (the first attempt was struck down by a state court) and defeated overwhelmingly in Michigan. A win for right-to-die forces in Maine will mean their cause is still alive and kicking.