They are an imperfect measure and are almost always overshadowed by the horse-race selections of presidents, governors and members of Congress.
But every U.S. election brings with it a welter of state or voter initiatives, which are basically statewide mini-referendums on some of the big social and political issues of the day.
The cost and difficulty of getting the proposals on the ballot in the first place are themselves a barometer of the importance placed on these concerns and how they rank as ongoing thorns in the U.S. body politic.
And this year was no exception, as even the prospect of electing the first black president in U.S. history could not detract from 153 ballot questions, 59 of them initiated by citizen petitions, on such topics as marijuana, abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, renewable energy and affirmative action, in 36 states. Here is how the main ones fared:
Same-sex marriage was on the ballot directly in three states and indirectly in two others. If you are a supporter, Tuesday was not a good day.
At the same time, you could take comfort in the fact that perhaps some of the antipathy toward the idea has dropped off: there were eight voter initiatives on gay marriage in 2006 and 11 in 2004, according to the New York Times. Also, at least two of the three U.S. states where the practice is legal, Connecticut and Massachusetts, are unaffected by Tuesday's vote.
Connecticut voters turned down a proposal to hold a special constitutional convention, which opponents of same-sex marriage had hoped would lead to a ban, overturning a recent state supreme court decision affirming gay marriage.
Meanwhile, three states — Florida, Arizona and California — formally voted to ban the practice while, in what was seen as a related measure, Arkansas voted 57 per cent to 43 per cent to ban unmarried couples from being adoptive or foster parents.
Of these states, liberal California was the most watched. Opponents and proponents of the measure spent a record, for a social measure, $73 million on their campaigns, bombarding voters with TV and radio ads. The final result, 52 per cent to 48 per cent to effect a ban, was the closest of the state results and is expected to overturn the law making same-sex marriage legal in California.
Two big victories for the marijuana lobby. Massachusetts voters elected to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot, those caught with an ounce (28 grams) or less. Instead, offenders will have to forfeit their holdings and pay a fine.
Michigan joined 12 other states in allowing severely ill patients access to pot for medical purposes, to relieve pain and nausea. Those who register with the state will be able to grow their own.
Right to die
Washington became the second state, after neighbouring Oregon 10 years earlier, to allow terminally ill patients to seek a physician-assisted suicide. The proposed Washington law is patterned directly on Oregon's and passed with almost 59 per cent support.
In a different vote on medical choice, Michigan voters opted (62.6 per cent) to allow stem cell research, a practice that has been banned by the federal government because it often uses stem cells from aborted fetuses.
In what may not be truly reflective of the American mood at the moment, Nebraska voters chose to ban all affirmative action programs in the state by a vote of 57.6 per cent to 42 per cent. The measure would ban all government and institutional contracts and scholarships based on race and gender but its legal underpinning is uncertain and it is expected to end up before the Nebraska supreme court.
In Florida, voters failed to respond in enough strength (there needed to be 60 per cent in favour) to repeal an old law that sought to ban Asians from owning land in the state. The law is still technically on the books but has never been enforced and is unlikely to pass constitutional muster, legal scholars have said.
In two diametrically opposed results, Missouri voters opted (66 per cent to 34 per cent) to increase the proportion of renewable energy in their state grid. Californians voted in almost equal measure (65 to 35 per cent) not to do the same.
The California proposal would have been the most aggressive clean-energy plan in the nation, requiring state utilities to generate half their electricity from windmills, solar farms and the like by 2025. It was opposed by some top environmentalists, who argued it was too ambitious, would drive up rates too quickly and seemed designed to benefit Texas entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens, whose wind-farm company is trying to become the Microsoft of the green revolution.
Only two U.S. states this time tried to impose sweeping bans on abortion — Colorado and South Dakota. Both were defeated, South Dakota's by virtually the same proportion by which an even tougher measure was turned aside two years ago.
Colorado's so-called personhood amendment would have defined a fertilized egg as a person. The South Dakota measure would ban all abortions except for those involving rape, incest or a narrowly defined exception for protecting the life and health of the mother, and was seen as a direct challenge to the underpinnings of the famous U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision Roe versus Wade.