Voters in dozens of states are getting the chance on Tuesday’s midterm elections to directly vote on issues such as legalizing marijuana, restricting abortion funding and blocking shale operations in certain areas, through a number of ballot questions that could reshape state laws after the mid-terms.
Ballot questions offer voters the chance to directly influence policy in their state, without waiting for an elected politician to champion the idea in the legislature. These ballot questions — sometimes known as initiatives, referendums, amendments or propositions — usually appear alongside the list of candidates running for public office. Some can be binding, while others simply advise lawmakers on how to handle a social question, or how to clear up a pressing legal issue.
Ballot questions can emerge through citizen petitions, state government proposals or legal challenges to existing laws. A successful ballot question can lead to a new statute or a change to the state constitution.
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Twenty-four states allow citizens to start the initiative process by gathering signatures and taking proposals directly to voters. Thirteen states allow the government to pose questions about policy.
Ballot questions aren’t tied to an individual politician’s fortunes, but they can still become big-money issues that affect major industries in the state. As a result, political action committees (PACs) sometimes spend millions of dollars promoting their side of the ballot question at election time.
Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, says the initiative process is popular wherever it exists.
“It can be misused or manipulated — it can be a little silly at times,” he told The Associated Press. “But on the whole, it ends up being a positive avenue for voters to express themselves.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the first state to adopt the initiative process was South Dakota in 1898. Since then, 23 other states have followed suit, but none since Mississippi in 1992.
“Overall, the breakdown isn’t changing,” said Patrick Potyondy, the NCSL’s legislative policy specialist. “Whatever state you’re from, you think your process is normal.”
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