Initiatives could set tone for national movements
Thirty-four states made wide-ranging decisions.
Stem-cell research will be given a giant boost in California. Reform of the electoral college - which some analysts said might ignite nationally - got doused in Colorado. Citizen outrage about illegal immigration in Arizona may now give momentum to that issues in other border states.
These were among the messages sent by 163 ballot initiatives in 34 states that could have national ramifications.
Some trends - such as bans on gay marriage in 11 states - are clear. Others, such as election reform ("no" to a blanket primary in California and "yes" to one in Washington), were less clear. Likewise, one state (Montana) approved the use of medical marijuana, while two (Alaska and Oregon) rejected easing restrictions on the drug.
Although the number of initiatives has dwindled in recent years, analysts say the current successes show the process to be alive and well and perhaps provides some contrast to apparent conservative gains in the White House and Congress.
The success of minimum-wage laws in Florida and Nevada - raising the state minimum wage to $6.15, $1 more than the federal - is evidence that grass-roots organizing at the state level may be growing in significance for those with progressive agendas.
"With the presidency, Senate, and House appearing to move conservative, the states have become more important as centers for progressive change, helping to mitigate conservative federal mandates," says Kristina Wilfore, executive director the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington. "Tuesday's initiative results showed the importance of activists at the local level in overcoming huge odds to achieve things that are appealing to voters in their own communities."
The same held true in Colorado with the success of the renewable energy initiative, requiring that state utilities provide 10 percent of their energy for consumers from alternative sources, such as wind and solar power by 2015.
In Arizona, voters sent a clear message about frustration with illegal immigration by approving a crackdown measure in all but four counties. Florida, one of four states considering medical malpractice measures, voted to hold doctors more accountable for medical mistakes while also limiting the percentage of winings lawyers can claim in malpractice court cases.
"As seen in citizen initiatives, there was plenty for conservatives and liberals alike to be happy with," says John Matsusaka president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. "When voters felt that their legislators couldn't or wouldn't give them the laws and measures they wanted, [voters] took them on themselves."
In California, which had 16 measures on the ballot, one of the most watched, Proposition 71, will establish a constitutional right to conduct research using stem cells and authorized an unprecedented $3 billion bond issue over 10 years. The measure was heavily supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as were several other state ballot measures that went his way after his high-profile participation late in the campaign. Among them are the defeat of two propositions that analysts say would have expanded Indian casinos - despite $100 million spent by supporters - and the defeat of a measure that would have reformed the state's controversial three-strikes law.
"The wins and defeats of several measures supported by or fought against by Arnold Schwarzenegger will certainly give him bragging rights and increase his clout over the California legislature," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist from Claremont McKenna College in California.
The closeness of the presidential race may have been a factor for some initiatives. Analysts said that the Colorado measure that would have scrapped the winner-take-all Electoral College vote may have failed because voters were concerned results could have impacted the current election.