November 13, 2008

Presidency Not Only Issue: Ballot Measures Reassessed

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On Nov. 4, voting was a particularly arduous task in Colorado. Apart from choosing the next president of the United States, as well as Senators and House Representatives, Coloradans were also asked to vote on a grand total of 14 ballot measures.
Across the nation, 153 ballot initiatives were presented to voters in this year’s election. Apart from Colorado, the ballots of a few other states were also crowded with up to 12 questions. While it is possible that voters may get worn out by the seemingly never-ending list of questions, Prof. Josh Chafetz, law, believes voters can still make sensible choices.
“It depends on how closely contested and hard-fought the issues are. With closely contested issues, people usually have a good sense of what they are voting for,” Chafetz said. Voters may not be well informed of the issues behind some ballot questions, he remarked, and often also have to vote for candidates with whom they are unfamiliar.
But rather than asking people to vote for individual issues in a referendum, Prof. Sherry Colb, law, argues that democracy works better when people elect legislators to make the final call as they are responsible for studying the laws in greater detail. While ballot measures “can occasionally do good,” some voters may be ill-informed and may abuse the system.
“People can exercise their prejudices without any fear of repercussion,” Colb said.
Among the many ballot questions, much attention is garnered by those concerning gay rights. All eyes are now on California’s Proposition 8, which was narrowly passed with a simple majority vote of 52 percent. As a result, California’s constitution will be amended, and the state will only recognize heterosexual marriages. Similar measures were also successfully passed in Arizona and Florida, while Arkansas approved a proposition that would prevent same-sex couples from adopting children.
Aly Blum ’09, president of Direct Action to Stop Heterosexism, believes that these decisions would “enshrine bigotry and inequality in these states’ constitutions.”
“That’s exactly what these constitutional amendments in California, Arizona and Florida are: mob rule prompted by fear and ignorance,” Blum stated in an e-mail.
The group is organizing a rally on Ho Plaza next Tuesday to express their disappointment and outrage over the election outcome.
“Like any blow to a group’s fundamental rights, it’s an attack that impels us to fight back harder,” Blum stated.
Echoing this sentiment, a few cities and counties in California have already promised to file a lawsuit to challenge the legitimacy of Prop 8. In California, the state constitution can be changed by either an amendment or a revision. While an “amendment” to the Constitution requires the support of a simple majority, explained Chafetz, a “revision” would demand a super majority in the legislature before voters make the final call. Groups opposing the election outcome argue that Prop 8 should qualify as a revision instead of an amendment as it changes people’s fundamental rights.
Such an immediate lawsuit, however, may result in a backlash, Colb said. Although the “strongly anti-discriminatory” California courts are “very likely” to overturn the election results, this process will risk fueling voters’ resentment.
“If this happened, this may add momentum to the [anti-gay] movement because it will look like a power struggle between the court and the people. People may be offended that the court keeps overriding people’s view,” Colb said, noting she is “very disappointed” at the bans and finds the results in Arkansas “especially despicable.”
Same-sex marriage is now forbidden in the 30 states that have had marriage amendments on the ballot. Massachusetts and Connecticut are the remaining two states that still recognize homosexual marriages.
At the same time, while propositions on social issues attracted the most limelight, they were relatively small in number. Out of the 153 ballot questions, 106 of them were related to tax and spending policies, according to the National Taxpayers Union, a non-partisan advocacy group for smaller government.
Despite a looming serious economic downturn, voters generally dismissed major tax cuts and approved expensive state projects.
In Massachusetts, voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative that could have saved taxpayers an average of $3,700 each year by reducing then eradicating state income tax in two years. Major tax cuts were also given a thumbs-down in two other states, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Apart from tax measures, 15 statewide bonding proposals totaling just under $18.4 billion were also put up to the test on Election Day. These bonding proposals, issued when the state government hopes to finance expensive projects through municipal bonds, were generally well-received. While only one proposal was rejected in California, the same state also approved spending $9.95 billion on a high-speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Most taxpayers realize that you have to pay for government expenditures. A tax cut is not always the smart thing to do,” said Prof. Uri Possen, economics.
There was only one statewide question in New York. The proposition, which would offer additional points to disabled veterans on civil service tests, was passed by a large margin.
Voters across the nation voiced their opinions on a plethora of significant issues. Affirmative action is banned in Nebraska while Colorado became the first state to reject its abolishment. Possessing small amounts of marijuana is no longer an offense under Massachusetts state law, but prosecution is still possible under federal law. Washington became the second state to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. In addition, Colorado, South Dakota and California voted against anti-abortion measures.
Iowa agreed to update the archaic language in its constitution. Instead of prohibiting an “idiot or insane person” from voting, the Iowa Constitution now bans “a person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote.”