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very four years, it happens: Coverage of the presidential campaign blots out the sun, throwing all the other important things happening in the election into shadow. But if the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is the main thing you’ve been paying attention to this season, then what November will actually decide might come as a big surprise.
Abortion could be illegal after the 22nd week of pregnancy in Colorado. A handful of deep-red states might liberalize their marijuana laws, while Oregon voters will decide whether to legalize medicinal use of psilocybin (aka “magic”) mushrooms. Rhode Islanders could change their state’s name. America could triple the number of states with statewide ranked-choice voting. Floridians will decide whether to implement a top-two primary elections system — meaning that the battleground state’s marquee races in 2022 could see two Republicans or two Democrats facing off against one another in the general election. And Uber and Lyft drivers in California could see their jobs reclassified and subject to a wage floor — pending the results of the most expensive ballot campaign in American history.
These are just a few of the dozens of ballot measures that voters will decide on November 3rd.
And if you’re tempted to brush them aside as unimportant, know this: The recent past shows us that ballot measures give us some sense of the direction the country’s politics are headed. In 1994, California’s Prop 187 hinted at a future in which undocumented immigration would become a central fissure in national politics. Hawaii’s statewide 1998 vote to ban same-sex marriage was a harbinger of the anti-LGBT ballot measures that swamped the rest of the country in the mid-2000s. And a wave of marijuana-legalization ballot measures over the last decade has drastically remade the way the entire country talks about and polices pot.
So, what’s on the ballot this year, and what does that tell us about the direction American politics is headed in the 2020s? To sort through it all, POLITICO spoke with Amanda Zoch, a policy specialist at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, where she tracks statewide ballot measures. A transcript of that conversation is below, condensed and edited for length and clarity.
This November, there are around 120 ballot measures up across the country. Overall, what trends are we seeing?
Amanda Zoch: Taxes and civil/criminal justice are always big topics, and this year is no different: About a quarter of the statewide ballot measures up this year relate to taxes in some way. Similarly, marijuana and abortion have long been ballot-measure staples, and this year, we have two abortion-related measures, and several more marijuana proposals. Health and elections-related proposals are also getting a lot of attention this year, which seems appropriate given that there’s a presidential election and both are big issues. Those perhaps wouldn’t have gotten quite as much attention a couple years ago, but they are right now. We’re not really seeing a lot of environment-related measures this year, which is kind of a surprise.
This year, those citizen-driven initiatives were really affected by the pandemic.
Because it was much more difficult to gather petition signatures?
Right. How do you get signatures when you’re not supposed to leave your house or see other people? This year’s general election has 38 statewide citizen initiatives across the country. And that’s a big decrease — there were 60 in 2018 and 72 in 2016. Honestly, that’s a big story.
Let’s start with some of the election-related proposals: There are ballot measures up in Alaska and Massachusetts to implement ranked-choice voting, which lets voters rank the candidates in their order of preference instead of choosing just one — and which a lot of people think will help out third-party candidates because it diminishes the chance they’ll be “spoilers.” Maine voters adopted it in 2016. This seems like the start of a trend.
Definitely. There’s been an increase in interest in ranked-choice voting, both through ballot measures front and legislatively. We’ll see how it goes with Maine this year, if that sparks even more interest or becomes discouraging. There are actually two ranked-choice voting ballot measures up: Alaska and Massachusetts. North Dakota had been planning on having one, but the Supreme Court determined that it actually didn’t have sufficient signatures. But in Alaska and Massachusetts, those measures are generating a lot of interest. And the Alaska measure would also establish a top-four primary, where the top four vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election ballot, regardless of party. So that, plus ranked-choice voting, would be a big election change in Alaska.