States eye ballot questions

On top of choosing a president, voters across the nation next Tuesday will consider statewide measures covering a wide range of moral and social concerns.

By Bob Allen

With the eyes of the nation trained on a presidential race that pollsters say is too close to call, voters in 38 states will decide in ballot initiatives Nov. 6 on hot-button issues including marijuana, marriage and doctor-assisted suicide.

The University of Southern California tallied a total of 176 propositions placed on state ballots by voters or legislators in a watch list compiled by its Initiative and Referendum Institute. That’s up from 159 in the 2010 election and the most since 204 measures appeared on ballots in November 2006.

Some issues like marijuana and same-sex marriage show up in multiple states, while others like Massachusetts’ “Death with Dignity” Question 2, that would allow a terminally ill person to be given a lethal injection, appear in just one.

Many deal with fiscal matters like taxes and bond issues, while others touch on moral and social issues like immigration, separation of church and state and repeal of the death penalty.

Marijuana-related measures are on the ballot in six states. Voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington will decide whether to legalize recreational use of cannabis, which federal law prohibits. Two states could add to the 17 that currently allow medical use of the drug, while Montana asks voters to repeal recent legislative action weakening the state’s medical marijuana law approved by voters in 2004.

Arkansas could become the first state in the South to legalize marijuana use for medicinal purposes. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention sent out an e-mail urging members to vote against the Medical Marijuana Act, calling it “an important moral issue” that “is really about legalizing marijuana for recreational use.”

One argument being advanced for decriminalization is that prohibition has failed and ending the war on pot would free law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes. A Southern Baptist Convention leader, however, warned of a slippery slope.

“A society that is ready to legalize marijuana for all adult users is a society that has actually lost its moral will to prohibit anything,” Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a podcast commentary Oct. 31. “Eventually the same arguments used about marijuana can be used in reference to any other narcotic, or for that matter any other drug.”

Five states this year have marriage-related propositions on their ballots. Voters in Maine and Maryland will vote on proposals placed on ballots by citizens seeking to overturn existing laws that ban gay marriage. Washington, meanwhile, is asking voters to overturn a bill passed by the legislature legalizing same-sex marriages. Minnesota voters will decide whether to adopt a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between one man and one woman. North Carolina voters approved a similar amendment in May.

Polls in Massachusetts show strong support for a citizen-initiated ballot question on whether to permit physician-assisted suicide, but the gap has narrowed in recent days amid campaigning by opponents including the powerful Catholic Church.

If it passes, Massachusetts would become just the third state to allow doctors to prescribe medication to end a patient’s life. Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has been in effect for 14 years, and Washington added a similar law in 2008. Compared to earlier measures, which sparked intense controversy, the debate in Massachusetts has been rather low key, suggesting to observers that public opinion is shifting on the right-to-die debate.

California’s Proposition 34 would abolish capital punishment in the state. California is one of 33 states that currently sanction the death penalty, but no one has been executed in the state since a judge halted its three-drug lethal-injection protocol in 2006.

Just this week a federal appeals court overturned the death sentence of California’s longest-serving inmate on death row, saying he received ineffective legal counsel. After 34 years awaiting execution, Douglas Stankewitz, 54, will be resentenced to life in prison without parole unless prosecutors decide to retry him.

Jeff Iorg, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., has admitted the state’s execution process is flawed, but he says abolition isn’t the answer.

“The way death penalty cases are handled in California needs reform, but Proposition 34 is the wrong set of solutions," Iorg said in Baptist Press. "We need reform of the process, not abolition of the death penalty as a sentencing option."

Immigration, a perennial election issue, shows up this year in Maryland, where voters will be asked to repeal a Dream Act passed by the state legislature in 2011 that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities, if they attended high school in Maryland and their parents pay taxes.

Montana will vote on LR-121, an act referred by lawmakers that would prohibit providing state services to people who are not U.S. citizens and who enter or remain in the country unlawfully. Another ballot measure in Montana would require parental notification for a minor to have an abortion.

Oklahoma’s State Question 759 would limit affirmative action by prohibiting discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, sex, ethnicity or national origin.

Alabama lawmakers are asking voters to remove outdated references to segregated schools and poll taxes in its 1901 state constitution. Supporters say it would improve the state’s reputation as a bastion of Jim Crow. Opponents, including the Alabama Education Association, say it would remove the right to an education for the state’s children.

Four states – Arkansas, Maryland, Oregon and Rhode Island – will vote on whether to expand gambling. Minnesota will decide on voter IDs. Missourians will consider raising tobacco taxes. Louisiana will vote on requiring “strict scrutiny” of laws that restrict gun possession. North Dakota could make animal cruelty a felony, while Michigan voters decide on a measure to require that utilities generate 25 percent of their energy from clean renewable fuels.

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