From joints to GMOs: Noteworthy ballot measures in U.S. midterm elections

Americans voting in the midterm elections Tuesday won't just be electing federal, state and local representatives. They'll also be voting on close to 150 state ballot measures — on everything from the legalization of marijuana to the banning of bear bait.

Americans will vote on 147 state ballot measures as part of midterm elections on Tuesday

Tuesday's midterm elections will include federal, state and Senate races as well as 147 ballot measures. (Clay Jackson/The Advocate Messenger/Associated Press)

Americans voting in the midterm elections Tuesday won't just be electing federal, state and local representatives. They'll also be voting on close to 150 state ballot measures — citizen- or legislature-driven initiatives on everything from the legalization of marijuana to the banning of bear bait.

In midterm elections, which see much lower turnout than presidential year elections, ballot initiatives are often used to draw people out to the polls — especially in states with close races, of which there are several this year.

With interest groups, corporations and politicians all pushing their pet causes, actually getting a measure on — or off — the ballot has turned into an expensive exercise. Spending on ballot initiatives is expected to exceed $1 billion US this election and goes to everything from ad campaigns to the paid professionals who gather the required number of voter signatures needed to get citizen-led measures on the ballot — and charge about $3 for every John Hancock collected.

(Some ballot measures don't require petition signatures because they are initiated by the state legislature, which puts a particular law, constitutional amendment or bond measure on the ballot.)

We take a look at some of the legislative changes that $1 billion could buy.

Priciest ballot battles

Health care — California' s doctors, lawyers and insurers have waged a pricey PR war over two ballot measures: Proposition 45, which would require the state insurance commissioner to approve rate hikes and would prohibit insurers from rejecting clients based on lack of prior coverage or credit history; and Proposition 46, which would raise the cap on pain and suffering damages in malpractice suits from $250,000 to more than $1 million and require doctors to submit to drug and alcohol testing. According to local media and consumer groups, the medical and insurance industries have spent more than $100 million campaigning against these measures. 

GMO labelling  — Colorado and Oregon both have ballot initiatives proposing mandatory labelling of food made with GMO ingredients, and the giants of the food and biotech industries — including Kraft, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Monsanto and DuPont — have spent millions trying to defeat the measures. In Oregon, opponents of the measure raised $16.3 million, outspending supporters by about 2.5 to one and making the campaign the most expensive in the state's history, the Statesman Journaland Bloombergreported. 
Colorado voters will decide on Nov. 4 whether or not to allow casino gambling at the Arapahoe Park in Aurora, Colo., above, and two other racetracks in the state. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Gambling — Seven states have gambling initiatives on the ballot, but it has been Colorado's effort to expand gambling at racetracks that has attracted the biggest spenders. Racetrack owners Mile High USA raised $12 million to support the measure and dubbed their campaign "Coloradans for Better Schools" to highlight the fact that tax revenues from the new gambling business would go to fund schools in the state. Big players such as MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming also weighed in on a gambling measure in Massachusetts, which would ban casinos in the state, repealing a 2011 law that approved the development of three resort casinos. It would also prohibit betting on live greyhound races.

Hot-button issues

Abortion — Ballot measures in North Dakota and Colorado would see "personhood" or the right to life extend to all stages of development while a Tennessee measure would amend the constitution to say that nothing in it "secures or protects [the] right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion."

Elections worker Joseph MacLean lifts petitions for Initiative 594, which seeks to expand the use of background checks on gun sales in Washington state. The midterm ballot also includes a second measure that aims to limit background checks. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
Fathers' rights — North Dakota has a measure, known as the parental rights initiative, that would consider both parents equally fit in custody cases unless there was good reason to do otherwise and would grant them equal custody rights. The initiative was championed by fathers' rights groups that see family courts as disproportionately favouring mothers in custody disputes. A similar measure was defeated 56 per cent to 44 per cent in 2006. 

Immigration reform — The Oregon ballot includes a referendum question on a 2013 law allowing the state's Department of Transportation to issue driver cards, similar to driver's licences, without requiring proof of legal residence in the U.S. The law was part of immigration reform measures passed by several states aimed at improving conditions for the country's undocumented immigrants.

Gun control — There are two contradictory measures on the ballot in Washington state: one aims to expand background checks to "all firearm sales and transfers," including those at gun shows and online, and the other wants to ban all but federally mandated background checks. If both pass, a court — or lawmakers — will have to decide which takes precedence. 


Maine — Animal rights activists put forth a measure that would prohibit "the use of dogs, bait or traps when hunting bears except under certain circumstances." The offensive bait in question were barrels of donuts and other junk food that activists said were being used to lure bears and shoot them at close range. If the polarizing issue gets voters to the polls, it could be a deciding factor in the state's tight gubernatorial race.
Jim Vohland talks with fellow out-of-state bear hunters at a hunting lodge in Wilton, Maine. Many hunters say if the ballot measure banning bear-baiting succeeds, it would devastate outfitters who rely on out-of-state tourism dollars. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

Hawaii — State legislators have proposed raising the mandatory retirement age for justices and judges from 70 to 80.

Michigan — The ballot includes a referendum on a 2012 law declaring the wolf a game animal and authorizing the state's first wolf hunting season.

Arkansas — A citizen-ledballot initiative wants to see alcohol legalized across the state, where half the counties are still dry. Polls suggest the measure may not pass and that voters want counties to decide for themselves.

Workers' rights

Minimum wage — Five states have ballot measures proposing minimum wage hikes:

  • Alaska — $7.75 to $9.75 by 2016.
  • Arkansas — $6.25 to $8.50 by 2017.
  • Nebraska — $7.25 to $9 by 2016.
  • South Dakota — $7.25 to $8.50 by 2015.
  • Illinois — $8.35 to $10. The measure is only a so-called advisory question, which carries no legal weight and is intended only to sound voters out on a particular issue — and draw them to the polls.

Sick leave — A Massachusetts ballot initiative would require all private and public employers with 11 or more employees to grant workers 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, and smaller employers to offer the same amount of sick leave unpaid. 


Missouri — The state has proposed amending the constitution to allow evidence of prior criminal acts to be considered in sex crime cases involving victims younger than 18 even if the accused was never charged.

Adam Eidinger, chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, puts up posters encouraging people to vote yes on D.C. Ballot Initiative 71 to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
New Jersey — The ballot includes a constitutional amendment that would, for some offences, allow an accused to be released before trial without having to post bail or to be denied release without the option of bail. Civil liberties activists support the measure because they think it will lead to speedier trials for low-risk offenders who can't afford bail and who under the current bail system spend unnecessarily long periods in detention awaiting trial.


Nevada — A ballot initiative would see a two per cent tax levied on any business operating in Nevada whose annual gross revenue exceeds $1 million that would be distributed among the states' public and charter schools.

Missouri — The state could become the first to institute a teacher evaluation system based on student performance data if this citizen-initiated constitutional amendment passes. The measure would also see three-year contracts replace tenure and would prohibit teachers from making standards-based performance evaluations part of collective bargaining.


Several states are looking to follow Washington, Colorado and the other 20-odd states that have decriminalized pot to some degree.

  • D.C. is proposing to legalize the use and production — but not sale — of small amounts of marijuana for personal use (up to two ounces or three plants). If the measure passes, it would likely not apply to the parts of the District of Columbia that are federal land — roughly 25 per cent of the city.
  • Oregon would authorize the manufacture, processing, sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use (up to eight ounces or four plants) and allow the state to license, regulate and tax the industry. A similar ballot measure failed in 2012 by a margin of 53 per cent to 47 per cent.
  • Alaska would allow residents 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of pot or six plants and would tax and regulate the production and sale of the drug.
  • Florida is proposing legalizing use and production of the drug for medical use. The measure is widely seen as an attempt to get younger voters to the polls in a tight gubernatorial race that will likely be won on turnout. 

Alaska, Oregon and D.C. all already allow medical marijuana use. There are also two local ballots measures —  in the Maine cities of Lewiston and South Portland — that would legalize recreational use of marijuana, as Portland, Me., did in 2013.


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