There were not just candidates on the ballot this Election Day. Voters in more than half the states also considered ballot initiatives on some of the most divisive issues in American life: voting rights, taxes, criminal justice reform, health care and environmental regulations, among others.
Voters in Florida, where polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern, will be among the first to pass initiatives. Floridians could restore voting rights to 1.5 million people who have been convicted of felonies but have completed their sentences. (Those convicted of murder or sexual offenses were excluded from the measure.)
If the initiative passes, it could augur well for the bipartisan criminal justice reform movement, which has sputtered in Washington since the election of President Trump, but remains vibrant in states and cities. Ohio was voting on a closely watched measure aimed at reducing the prison population by decreasing penalties for low-level drug crimes. In Louisiana, voters may overturn a Jim Crow-era law that allows split juries to decide felony trials, as long as 10 of the 12 jurors agree. And Coloradans decided whether to outlaw involuntary servitude as a punishment for crimes.
Florida voters also considered a measure that requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to enact new taxes and fees or raise existing ones. Similar laws across the country have led to reduced funding for schools — one of the factors that led to teacher walkouts in six states this year.
Other anti-tax measures appeared on ballots in Arizona, North Carolina and Oregon, while voters in Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah weighed raising taxes to pay for education.
A hugely expensive and deeply divisive fight in Washington State over whether to create the nation’s first carbon fee impassioned voters in a year when three of the state’s 10 seats in the House of Representatives were competitive. The measure, aimed at reducing climate change, would place a fee of $15 per ton of carbon emissions, with an increase of $2 a year; most of the revenue would be invested in renewable energy and air pollution reduction. Renewable energy initiatives were also on the ballot in Arizona and Nevada.
Massachusetts became the first state where voters considered a referendum that would roll back discrimination protections for transgender people, while North Dakota and Michigan decided whether to become the first Midwestern states to legalize recreational marijuana. And in a continuation of trends from 2016, voters in a cluster of conservative states will choose whether to raise the minimum wage or expand access to Medicaid, the public health insurance program for the poor and disabled.
Abortion is a perennial focus for ballot measures. West Virginia and Alabama voters considered sweeping state constitutional amendments that would declare that women have no right to an abortion. The measures are priorities for religious conservatives, and could either prompt a Supreme Court case or pave the way for outright bans if the court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Another echo of America’s political divisions — whether to make voting and voter registration easier, or guard against possible improprieties with tighter requirements — played out on state ballots. Maryland voters decided whether to allow registration right up to Election Day, while North Carolina and Arkansas voters considered amending their state constitutions to require voters to present photo identification when casting ballots.
Ballot measures in Nevada and Michigan would make registration automatic when renewing or applying for a driver’s license — unless a person opts out — and Michigan’s would also allow later registration and expansion of absentee voting.
There were over 150 ballot initiatives this year, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan research organization. There were more progressive measures than conservative ones, said Josh Altic, director of the group’s ballot measures project, partly because more than half of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. Ballot initiatives allow citizens to put forward proposals those policymakers may oppose.
States began to allow citizen-initiated ballot measures at the turn of the 20th century, driven in part by a populist desire to rein in corporate power. Historically, conservatives racked up some of the highest-profile victories using the process, on issues ranging from gay marriage to tax restrictions.
More recently, the left has embraced ballot measures. In 2016, liberals won over 80 percent of their ballot initiative efforts, according to Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group.
Measures that prove popular with voters this year could spread to other states in 2020. For interest groups hoping to prevail on specific issues or turn out groups of motivated voters, initiatives can be “part of a larger strategy to basically test the ground,” Ms. Fields said. “They are testing messages, testing organizing strategies, pushing conversations.”