Donald Trump’s battle with Hillary Clinton has dominated the headlines, but voters in most states will be voting on a lot more than just the next president. And some of those decisions will have huge implications.
Voters in a number of states will decide whether to legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage, expand the use of charter schools, and even establish a statewide single-payer health care system.
Read on to learn where these pivotal votes are happening, what’s at stake, and what the polls say about the most likely outcome.
1) As many as five states could legalize marijuana
Over the past two decades, drug reform groups have been relentless in their campaign to dismantle legal restrictions on cannabis use — starting with medical marijuana proposals. They achieved a breakthrough in 2012, when Colorado and Washington state became the first states to legalize marijuana outright. Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC, voters followed suit in 2014.
Now marijuana advocates could be on the verge of an even bigger triumph. They have a total of nine initiatives on the ballot. Four of them (Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota) are medical marijuana proposals, while the other five (in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada) are about outright legalization.
If these latter five initiatives all passed, it would vastly expand the legal market for recreational marijuana. Particularly important is California, whose population is bigger than the combined populations of the four states (plus DC) that have legalized already.
And polls show that voters in most of these states are ready for the proposals. A whopping 58 percent of California voters favor their state’s measure, as do smaller majorities in Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. The legalizers’ toughest state has been Arizona, where voters favor the measure, but only by 50 percent to 42.
The momentum of pro-marijuana groups partly reflects shifting public opinion, but it also reflects the fact that the groups have hit upon a winning formula. In all five states, the proposals have been framed as “regulating marijuana like alcohol.” This not only makes the prospect seem less alien to undecided voters, it also subtly reinforces a key argument of prohibition foes: that making a substance legal can actually improve government oversight of the industry.
“Our current laws also force marijuana — aside from medical marijuana — to be sold in the underground market,” writes Kitty Jung, an advocate of Nevada’s legalization proposal. “This increases the level of crime on our streets and makes our communities less safe.”
That message resonated in the four states that have already approved legalization, and backers are hoping to add five more to the list.
You can read a lot more about this year’s marijuana initiatives in Vox’s comprehensive explainer.
2) Teacher unions in Massachusetts want to limit charter school growth
Massachusetts is widely considered to have some of the nation’s best charter schools. The state has allowed a relatively small number of schools to open, and has prohibited for-profit schools, which have caused problems in some other states. The result: The state’s charter schools have waiting lists.
So charter supporters are seeking to change Massachusetts law to allow more charter schools to open. And that has exposed one of the biggest fissures in Democratic politics in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
The education policy world has long been divided between “reformers” who favor measures to give children more choices and hold teachers more accountable, and teachers’ unions and their allies who see these proposals as an assault on traditional public schools and the first step to privatization. The reformers enjoy the support of Barack Obama many moderate Democratic mayors, while the unions are supported by liberal lions such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The reformers have the backing of billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and the Walton family (of Walmart fame), and the teachers’ unions have ample financial resources of their own (they’ve spent $12 million, compared to $21 million for charter supporters). So Massachusetts has become the most important front in this Democrat-on-Democrat fight. Teachers’ unions have portrayed the proposal as an effort by out-of-state billionaires to undermine public schools. And they hope that stopping charter expansion in Massachusetts, a state advocates tout as a bright spot for charters, will slow the momentum of charter schools nationwide.
And it’s looking like the unions will get their way. An October poll showed Massachusetts voters opposing charter school expansion by a 52 percent to 41 percent, and the margin had gotten wider since September.
3) Four states could get higher minimum wages
Efforts to raise the minimum wage have gained momentum across the country this year, with California and New York acting to boost their minimum wages to $15 over the next few years. Ballot initiatives in four states this week don’t go that far — they only increase the minimum to $12 rather than $15 — but they’d still be wins for the labor movement.
The states considering minimum wage hikes are Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington State. Washington’s increase would have the least impact, since its minimum wage is already $9.47 and its largest city, Seattle, passed $15 minimum wage legislation in 2014. Workers in the other states would see larger boosts — from $8.31 in Colorado, $8.05 in Arizona, and $7.50 in Maine, according to CNN.
The economic effects of minimum wage hikes are hotly disputed. Many economists on the right argue that higher minimum wages are bad for workers because they eliminate entry-level jobs. Left-leaning economists dispute that, arguing that empirical evidence shows little if any job losses as a result of past increases. What is clear, however, is that a $12 minimum wage poses a smaller risk of job losses than the $15 minimum adopted by some states and municipalities in recent years.
South Dakota is taking the opposite tack, at least for some workers: It has a ballot measure that would cut the minimum wage for workers under 18 from $8.50 to $7.50. Supporters argue that this would make it easier for them to gain work experience.
4) Three states will vote on the death penalty
The death penalty has been a topic of frequent debate in California. In 2012, voters were asked to approve a ballot measure outlawing it, but they declined, 52 percent to 48 percent.
This year, death penalty opponents are trying again with a ballot measure that would convert death sentences into lifetime prison terms. At the same time, death penalty proponents have put a measure of their own on the ballot. This would accelerate the appeals process (and hopefully reduce costs) by establishing new time limits for the legal process. Critics worry that could lead to more errors going undetected until it’s too late to do anything about it.
Both California propositions appear headed for defeat. The measure to abolish the death penalty was losing 45 to 44 in a recent poll, while the measure to expedite executions was behind by a larger 42 to 35 margin.
Meanwhile, death penalty advocates in Nebraska are hoping to reinstate the process after it was abolished last year. And in Oklahoma, voters will be asked to make the legality of the practice part of the state constitution, to make future abolition much harder. (Polling on this issue is sparse in Nebraska and Oklahoma.)
5) Colorado’s single-payer health care proposal is a long shot
A few years ago, lawmakers in Vermont tried to set up a single-payer health care system in the state to demonstrate its advantages over the more market-oriented approach taken by Obamacare. But the plan fell apart because Vermont lawmakers couldn’t figure out how to raise the necessary funding for the massive program.
Now a group called ColoradoCare is trying to establish a single-payer health care system in Colorado using a ballot measure. The measure would establish a new payroll tax to raise $25 billion to pay for the program. Its advocates argue that this would actually save money in the long run because employers and employees would no longer have to pay health insurance premiums.
But the proposal’s chances look grim: Voters currently oppose it 65 percent to 27 percent.
6) Washington state will vote on the first statewide carbon tax
Voters in Washington state will vote on whether to use a carbon tax to tackle climate change. As Vox’s Dave Roberts puts it, “it would be the first carbon tax in the US, the biggest in North America, and one of the most ambitious in the world.” To woo conservatives, it uses most of the revenue raised by the carbon tax to reduce other taxes.
An October poll showed the Washington measure ahead, but just slightly — 42 percent to 37 percent — but with 20 percent undecided. Late deciders tend to vote “no” on ballot proposals, so that’s a bad sign. In trying to make a package everyone could love, advocates may have created a project that no one loves.
7) Los Angeles and Seattle will vote on big expansions to their transit systems
East Coast cities like Boston and Philadelphia participated in the subway boom of the early 19th century, and their residents still rely on extensive underground systems a century later. In contrast, West Coast cities experienced most of their growth during the automobile era of the mid-20th, when subways were seen as out of style. So as walkable urbanism has come back into fashion, they’ve had to play catch-up on public transportation.
Measure M in Los Angeles County would authorize a half-cent sales tax to fund tens of billions of dollars in transit and highway improvements. The measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass; a similar proposal in 2012 narrowly failed. Polls show that the result is likely to be razor thin this time around.
The story is similar in Seattle, where a plan called Sound Transit 3 would raise a variety of taxes to fund a big expansion to the region’s light rail system and other transit services.