The presidential campaign is drawing the bulk of the national media's attention, but it's far from the only thing voters will have on their minds come election day. States across the country are putting initiatives on their ballots that could have profound effects on everything from gay rights to the death penalty to abortion rights. Where are the most hotly contested ballot initiatives, and what's at stake? Here, a list of five issues that will hang in the balance on Nov. 6:
1. Gay marriage
From 2004 to 2011, same-sex marriage supporters lost all but one of the 28 statewide votes on limiting or banning gay marriage. But this year, gay-rights advocates may be more successful, says Miranda Leitsinger at NBC News. Four states are weighing in on the issue in November. Minnesota will decide whether to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage (already banned by law); Maryland and Washington will consider repealing state laws permitting same-sex marriage; and Maine's Question 1 asks whether the state should issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In Washington, same-sex marriage supporters have out-raised their rivals $10.5 million to $1.5 million, and 54 percent of people support gay marriage. Gay-rights activists have raised several times more than gay-marriage opponents in Maine and Maryland, too.
2. The death penalty
California's Proposition 34 would end the state's death penalty, says Alana Semuels at the Los Angeles Times. The anti-death-penalty side — those backing Proposition 34 — has piled up a $6.5 million war chest with the help of famous supporters, including actors Martin Sheen and Edward James Olmos. And the "cash-strapped opposition to Proposition 34" is struggling to keep up, says Howard Mintz at the San Jose Mercury News, "with just a few hundred thousand dollars in campaign funds raised so far." That's why death-penalty supporters are employing online advertisements to spotlight death row villains, the families of victims, and law enforcement officers. Still, "more Californians oppose the measure than support it," says Elizabeth Dias at TIME. But the margin is narrowing. A September poll showed 51 percent against and 38 percent for the measure, while one released this month showed 48 percent against and 43 percent in favor.
Floridians will weigh in on one of the most divisive questions of the culture war — abortion rights. The state's Amendment 6 aims to "bring Florida laws into line with more restrictive federal laws," says Lizette Alvarez at The New York Times. It would ban the use of state tax money to pay for abortions or for health insurance coverage of abortion, except in rare cases, including rape, incest, and when a woman's life is at stake. In practice, most state employees wouldn't be able to use their insurance to cover abortions. Most voters see the presidential election as the main event, says Mary Harned at LifeNews, but this vote is one that matters most to abortion opponents.
Washington, Oregon, and Colorado are all in the running to become the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana. And Washington looks like it's the most likely to take the plunge, says Jonathan Martin at The Seattle Times. "But even with a huge fundraising advantage, and less organized opposition, Initiative 502 is far from a lock." The initiative has a 51 percent to 41 percent lead among all voters, but a narrower, 47-40 edge among likely voters. And young people in Washington overwhelmingly support making pot legal, with more than 60 percent giving the measure a thumbs up. "If younger voters are enticed to vote for president, or for the gay marriage initiative, Washington could make history in November."
5. Voter ID
A Minnesota measure would require voter ID at the polls, and predictably, the rhetoric is getting contentious. "I think the voter ID proposal will pass," says John Hinderaker at Power Line, "but its proponents are being badly outspent by pro-voter fraud forces (i.e., the Democratic Party)." Boy, conservatives aren't giving up their attempts at "voter suppression" easily, says Ari Berman at The Nation. One court after another has thrown out these laws, including in critical swing states such as Florida and Ohio, because they aim to drive Democratic-leaning low-income and minority voters away from the polls. The Minnesota initiative is just one more effort to do an end run around the consensus that these laws are "unconstitutional, discriminatory, and unnecessary."