Recapping Key Ballot Referendums Across America

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 5, 2014

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Voters across America hit the polls this week and influenced state law and policy by approving or rejecting a number of legislative initiatives on referendum ballots.  Issues such as marijuana legalization, abortion, gun control, and minimum wage were among the 147 ballot measures decided in several states, giving both state and federal legislators a glimpse of where American voters stand on key social and economic policies.

Marijuana Enjoys Referendum Success

Marijuana advocates, who saw two more states and the District of Columbia pass legislation legalizing the drug for recreational use, celebrated the continued liberalization of anti-drug law.  Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC joined Colorado and Washington in making the possession and use of small amounts marijuana legal.  With the recent victories for pro-legalization, supporters of marijuana decriminalization suspect a trend that will eventually lead to increased success at both the state and federal level. 

Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, expressed particular satisfaction with the DC initiative, saying, “With marijuana legal in the federal government’s backyard, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for national politicians to continue ignoring the growing majority of voters who want to end prohibition.”  Although marijuana is still illegal under federal law, the Obama administration has not taken any significant action against the drug in either Colorado or Washington State, both of which spent the past year navigating the logistics of marijuana legalization. 

With only DC and four of fifty states legalizing marijuana for recreational use, supporters still have a long way to go before the issue gains support from the American majority, however, the signs continue to be encouraging for the pro-legalization crowd.  Conservatives who have long opposed legalization seem to be acknowledging the crippling collateral damage of the country’s War on Drugs, and the resulting skepticism of the current landscape of American drug policy combined with examples of legalization in Colorado and Washington may hasten the process of marijuana decriminalization. 

Voters Split on Abortion and Guns

Two highly contentious social and political issues, abortion and gun control, saw voter support split across four states.  In Tennessee, voters ok’d a constitutional amendment that opened the door for anti-abortion legislation by declaring that nothing in the state’s constitution “secures or protects a right to abortion or requires funding of an abortion.”  Given the federal position, which closely scrutinizes all anti-abortion laws for “undue burdens” on women, it is likely the Tennessee amendment will lead to a legal challenge either directly or by way of a law passed under its authority.

North Dakota residents rejected a pro-life amendment that would have recognized and protected “the inalienable right of life of every human being at any stage of development.”  Had Measure 1 passed, the North Dakota constitution would not have recognized a right to abortion, and state lawmakers would be given the opportunity to pass and defend abortion restrictions from legal challenges.  Voters declined to extend anti-abortion proponents state constitutional authority to restrict the practice, and Measure 1 failed.

In Washington State voters closed a gun-show loophole that enabled the sale of weapons without mental-health or criminal background checks.  All online or gun-show firearms purchasers in the state are now subject to the same scrutiny required by federal law at retail outlets and gun stores across the country.  Drifting in the opposite direction, Alabama passed a strongly worded gun amendment to its constitution that establishes a “fundamental right to bear arms” that forces any anti-gun law to undergo strict scrutiny review – the highest level of legal protection possible.  Any legislation that inhibits gun ownership in Alabama must now be justified by a compelling government interest, which effectively ensures any legal challenge to the right of Alabama citizens to own guns will be unsuccessful. 

Minimum Wage Increase Wins Big

Perhaps the biggest winners of the ballot referendum battle were supporters of minimum wage increases about which voters sent a resounding message that they demand higher wages.  Five states approved increases, bringing the total number of states to have approved similar measures over the last couple of elections to thirty.  Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Illinois approved proposals that force employers to raise wages for employees to a minimum hourly pay between $8.50 and $9.75 per hour. The Illinois law represents voter opinion, and won’t immediately impact the state’s minimum wage.

Although minimum wage ballot measures often achieve success at the state level, the federal minimum remains $7.25 despite efforts by President Obama to raise it to $10.10 / hour by 2015.  Supporters of minimum wage increases have consistently pointed to successful state ballot measures as evidence of voter opinion on the issue, and the clean sweep across five states in this year’s election cycle will serve to reinforce the argument.  Opponents of the laws warn that the negative effect on small and midsize businesses would negate benefits by decreasing the number of jobs available, but the voice of the American public seems clear on the issue.

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