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Voting Rules, Marijuana Legalization Among 2020 Ballot Measures

The pandemic has dampened citizen activism on initiatives

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In past elections in some states, ballot initiatives were just as important or dramatic for voters as many of the races for elected office. This year? Not so much.

Citizens likely will vote on fewer initiatives in November, in large part because of the coronavirus. But a number of states will still have measures to consider, including new rules for voting and legalization of marijuana.

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About half of U.S. states allow citizen initiatives; those that do require a certain number of signatures from registered voters for the measure to get on the ballot. With Americans being asked to maintain social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, the kind of large gatherings — like state fairs or campaign events — where advocates traditionally collect signatures for their initiatives are either not happening or not well attended.

State legislatures also can authorize initiatives. And after a slow start due to the pandemic, it seems there will be as many legislatively referred ballot measures as in a typical election year, says Amanda Zoch, an expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Still, as of late July, about 109 initiatives were slated to be voted on this year, compared to an average of 148 by the same point in previous years, according to Ballotpedia.

Citizen initiatives historically have reflected issues where lawmakers haven't caught up to changing public views. Because getting on the ballot is a lengthy process, initiatives are hardly an instant barometer. For example, racial concerns and calls for police reform moved to the spotlight after the death of Minnesotan George Floyd, but that happened too late to spur much action this year. The state of Mississippi decided in June to take a confederate symbol off its flag and will let voters decide in November whether to approve a new design.

Another emerging trend is the fight over whether drivers for app-based services like Uber are treated as contractors or employees. Josh Altic, ballot measure project director for Ballotpedia expects a slew of future initiatives on the issue. The battle starts with a California measure to classify them as independent contractors.

Here are some of the hot topics this year:

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Redistricting and voting

The 2020 Census will provide the data needed for state legislatures to begin redistricting, as soon as next year. A number of citizen initiatives will attempt to take politics out of the process by having nonpartisan boards draft districts. Voters in Missouri and Virginia (and possibly Arkansas and North Dakota) will vote on measures to change redistricting rules.

  • The way we vote is also on the minds of voters in some states. Coloradans will decide whether the state's Electoral College members will have to vote for the candidate who wins the national popular vote, not necessarily who won in Colorado.
  • Measures in Alaska and Florida would move the states to nonpartisan primaries where the top vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party. North Dakota and Arkansas may also put such initiatives on their ballots.
  • Alaska and Massachusetts are considering proposals to let voters rank their candidate choices, so their second choice would count if their first choice doesn't do well. North Dakota and Arkansas may put such measures on their ballots as well.
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  • A variety of tax measures will be decided this fall, including a graduated income tax in Illinois, a tax on high-income residents in Arizona and tobacco and electronic cigarette levies in Colorado and Oregon.
  • Colorado, Florida and Louisiana are considering initiatives that would change the way certain property taxes are calculated. A California proposal would give taxpayers 55-plus more leeway to maintain their current tax break when they move to a different home.

Marijuana and other drugs

  • New Jersey and South Dakota (and possibly Arizona) will consider legalizing recreational marijuana. South Dakota and Mississippi voters will consider allowing marijuana to be purchased for medicinal use. Oregon and the District of Columbia will have measures on the ballot easing rules against hallucinogenic mushrooms.
  • In Oregon, voters will consider a sweeping decriminalization of controlled substances.

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