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A Look At Some Of 2018's Most Contentious Ballot Initiatives


The number of citizen-driven ballot initiatives has doubled since the last midterm election. Voters are facing questions on everything from voting rights to vaping to slavery. Josh Altic of the website Ballotpedia keeps track of it all. He's here to talk more. Welcome to the program.

JOSH ALTIC: Hi. Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: So let's start with that slavery initiative. Where is that on the ballot? How is it possible that it's on the ballot?

ALTIC: Sure. This is a constitutional amendment in Colorado. And right now, the Colorado Constitution bans slavery in all cases except in the case of convicted criminals. This amendment would simply remove that exception, so it would change the language so that it bans slavery and indentured servitude across the board with no exceptions. Yeah, this was on the ballot in 2016 as well where it actually failed. The language in 2016 on the ballot had a lot of double negatives in it, and there were some concerns in 2016 that it could affect some prison work programs. In 2018, those concerns are sort of not in focus as much, and I expect there'd be more support for it in 2018 than there was in 2016.

CORNISH: One popular area of reform is elections policy. I think you've said there's something like 20 measures in 15 states. What are the trends there? What are the kinds of ballot initiatives are you seeing?

ALTIC: Redistricting as a huge trend this year. I think with 2020 Census coming up, people kind of feel like there's a deadline this year to get those on the ballot. So four states are voting on a new system for redistricting today. For three of those, they're voting on whether to create an independent commission. And these would be the first states with independent commissions to do redistricting east of the Rockies. So this would be kind of a breakthrough for that movement specifically.

CORNISH: Right. Because we've seen that in California, for example.

ALTIC: Right, in some more West Coast states.

CORNISH: I want to talk about marijuana policy because, over the years, we have seen a wave of deregulation in some states. It looks like there's another wave of ballot initiatives this year related to marijuana use. How is it different?

ALTIC: Yeah. This year, once again, you see it breaking into the Midwest and into some more conservative states. So this year, we're answering the question, can you pass recreational marijuana legalization in a state that voted Republican for the presidential election in the last three elections? Alaska is the only state to do it so far, and North Dakota would be the second state. Michigan - it's also on the ballot. It's more likely to pass there, but those two would be the first states in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana.

CORNISH: So this is not about further regulation in the states that have it.

ALTIC: No, no. These are - these initiatives are still in the trend of moving towards more progressive and removing restrictions on marijuana use, as with medical marijuana in Missouri and Utah.

CORNISH: The president, on the other hand, has made immigration the focus of his campaigning in the last few days. Is that an issue that's showing up as a ballot initiative, either citizen driven or otherwise?

ALTIC: Two measures kind of highlight that issue - one in Oregon, which would repeal the state's sanctuary status. It's one of the not-progressive measures. They're conservative measures in a liberal state rather than a progressive measure in a conservative state. So that measure would repeal the state sanctuary status, and it's certainly considered sort of a referendum on policies being advanced at the national and federal level. And then also in North Dakota, there is an initiative that would make it explicit that only citizens could vote. Well, currently, the Constitution reads that every citizen can vote, so it's a constitutional minimum instead of a constitutional maximum. That measure is also kind of related to the immigration issue. And I think there'll be a lot more eyes than just North Dakota eyes on that measure today.

CORNISH: You know, in the past, you've noted that state ballot initiatives had been decreasing over the years, including the number of citizen-driven ones, right? And yet, here we are with that number on the rise. What does this tell us about the energy of the electorate, where the focus is?

ALTIC: Yeah. It differs when you look at each of these policies that are being advanced. There's sort of a certain demographic that the proponents of these measures are tapping into. But in general, what this means is that there are groups or individuals or even businesses in some cases that have seen that the people are willing to pass measures that the legislature has not considered or has not approved. So this is an effort to tap into some voter dissatisfaction across the board and get policies directly to the voters and see if they can advance those policies through direct democracy instead of relying on legislative policies.

CORNISH: Josh Altic is director of the Ballot Measures Project at Ballotpedia. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALTIC: No problem, thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.