These measures range across the spectrum.
Some, such as questions in Alaska and Massachusetts, seek to tamp down negative politics by putting in a “ranked choice” system in which voters list their candidate preferences in order rather than choosing one. It is an increasingly popular idea that advocates say would force people running for office to focus more on building coalitions and less on destroying each other.
Other initiatives, such as those in Missouri and Virginia, ask whether their citizens want to join more than a dozen states that have established redistricting commissions to cut down on gerrymandering.
Amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought a larger reconsideration of racial barriers, California is considering Proposition 16. The measure would bring back affirmative action, a reversal of what the state did in 1996, when 54.6 percent voted to amend the state constitution to prohibit government institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity in public employment, public contracting or public education. Proposition 16’s prospects are unclear; if it fails, the affirmative action ban would stay in place.
Also on the ballot across the country are at least 20 statewide and local initiatives that would deal with criminal justice — from measures in Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Maine, that would establish civilian review boards to investigate claims of police misconduct, to a proposed constitutional amendment in Michigan that would require a search warrant for law enforcement to gain access to anyone’s electronic communications.
Here’s why you should pay attention to these sorts of questions, even when they are being decided upon thousands of miles away from where you live: “Initiatives are much better at predicting the future than individual races,” says Grover Norquist, the veteran conservative activist who heads the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform.
Among the ones that Norquist has his eye on this year is California’s Proposition 15, which would partially repeal a radical 1978 initiative known as Proposition 13 that put a lid on property taxes in a state of soaring real estate prices, squeezing local government of revenue. This year’s measure would leave the cap on homeowners’ property taxes, fixed to what they paid for their houses, but would tie what commercial ventures pay to the actual market value of their properties. By one estimate, it could raise taxes by as much as $11.5 billion a year, starting in 2025.
Polling suggests the outcome for Proposition 15 is hard to predict, in part because California voters are more consumed by the national presidential race and the covid-19 pandemic and have not yet given the initiative much attention.
State and local experiments that succeed tend to catch on elsewhere. And sometimes, the reverse is true. After a string of ballot initiatives in 2004 and 2008 banned same-sex marriage, the backlash changed the social climate around the issue. Prominent politicians such as then-President Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — following the lead of then-Vice President Joe Biden — reversed their previous stances against legalizing gay marriage.
In fact, what gave the LGBTQ community the nationwide right to marry was a series of court decisions that deemed the state laws, including the ban put into place by California’s 2008 Proposition 8, which was passed by a margin of more than 4 percentage points, to be unconstitutional. In its landmark 2015 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that gay couples should be allowed to marry, no matter where they lived in the United States.
This is an election unlike any we have ever seen, and as high as the stakes are in the candidate contests, it’s worth remembering that other things will also be decided in just under two weeks, or whenever the results finally come in.
In the dry language lower down on ballots across the country — which many voters may decide to skip entirely — are issues that could shape their lives, and perhaps all of ours, for many years to come.