2010 Ballot Propositions

Voters decided 184 ballot propositions in 38 states in 2010, approving two-thirds of them. No single issue emerged as a common theme across the country, but individual states featured high-profile battles over marijuana legalization, taxes on millionaires, secret voting in union elections and health care systems. The number of initiatives—new laws brought to the ballot by citizen petition—was only 46 for the year, the lowest annual total for an even-numbered year in a quarter century.

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About the Author
John G. Matsusaka is the Charles F. Sexton chair in American Enterprise in the Marshall School of Business, Gould School of Law, and Department of Political Science, and president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute, all at the University of Southern California. He is the author of For the Many or the Few: The Initiative, Public Policy, and American Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2004).



Fueled by the tea party movement, conservative groups won big in elections across the country in November 2010. The conservative surge spilled over to ballot propositions, as progressive measures went down to defeat and many conservative measures were approved. Voters in 37 states decided 184 propositions in 2010 (see Table A). The overall number was up from 174 in 2008, but below the 226 decided in 2006. The number of citizen-initiated proposals was at its lowest level since 1986. Voters approved 65 percent of the measures in 2010, roughly consistent with historical averages.

The 2010 propositions reached the ballot in several different ways. Forty-six were initiatives, new laws proposed by citizen groups and qualified for the ballot by petition. Four referendums, proposals to repeal existing laws, also qualified by petition,1 Initiatives and referendums come to the ballot when citizen groups become dissatisfied with the status quo and seek to change existing laws by a direct appeal to voters. Voters approved 43 percent of initiatives, roughly the historical average, and three of the four referendums.

Four propositions gave voters the option to call a constitutional convention, as required by state constitutions, all of which were rejected. The other 130 propositions were legislative measures, placed on the ballot by a state’s legislature. As usual, most of the measures that went before the voters originated in the legislature, and as usual, most were approved (75 percent for the year). Most legislative measures were constitutional amendments—every state but Delaware requires voter approval to amend the constitution—while 17 were bond measures and a few concerned statutory matters.

  Download Table A: "State-by-State Totals for 2010"

Initiative Trends

One of the more intriguing stories this year was the relative scarcity of initiatives. Citizen-initiated laws usually attract the most money and the most attention, and propose the boldest policies. Initiatives are the poster child for direct democracy, and in the eyes of advocates and opponents, encapsulate all of the promises and perils of popular lawmaking. South Dakota in 1898 was the first state to adopt the process. Mississippi was the latest adopter in 1992, bringing the total number of states that allow initiatives to 24.2

The 46 initiatives in 2010 is the lowest since 1986, when 42 initiatives were on ballots nationwide. The 2010 total is well below the annual average of 60 since the modern initiative movement began in 1978 with California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13, and less than half of the record 93 on the ballot in 1996.

The reason for the waning of the initiative process is unclear. Initiatives may have been a casualty of the economic and financial crisis, as citizens found they had more pressing concerns to deal with than enact new laws. However, initiative activity did not decline during other troubled economic times, such as the 2001 or the 1990–91 recessions, and initiative activity exploded during the Great Depression (with 69 on the ballot in 1932). A fair amount of recent activity has been in response to court rulings, such as initiatives banning same-sex marriage or restricting the use of eminent domain. One reason for the decline in initiative activity may be the absence of similar catalyzing court rulings in the last few years.

It remains to be seen if the decline in initiative activity in 2010 signals an end to the epic wave of initiatives that began in the late 1970s. Figure A shows the number of initiatives by decade, beginning in 1904 when the first initiatives appeared in Oregon. Initiatives were used extensively in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Much of that activity arose from tensions between the new urban majorities in many states and the rural interests that controlled the legislatures.3 Initiative activity trailed off in the middle decades of the century, with only 89 measures from 1961 to 1970. Beginning in the late 1970s, initiative use picked up again, following California’s Proposition 13 in 1978 that set off a national tax revolt. Each successive decade set a new record for the number of initiatives, peaking with 389 in 1991 to 2000. The 344 initiatives for the decade of 2001 to 2010 is high by historical standards, but down 12 percent from the previous decade. The numbers hint that we may be at the start of a down period for citizen lawmaking.

Conservative Victories

In contrast to previous election years, 2010 did not see the emergence of a national issue that spread across the states, such as same-sex marriage and eminent domain that dominated ballots in 2004 to 2008. Instead, an array of state-specific issues appeared that addressed real or perceived needs in individual states. Although the issues were promoted by groups across the ideological spectrum, the energized conservative base that flocked to the polls in November gave many of the ballot proposition results a conservative cast. The propositions included such topics as:

Marijuana legalization. Marijuana opponents were victorious in three of four contests across the country. California’s Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana, was one of the highest profile initiatives in 2010. It led in early polls, but ended up failing 53 to 47 percent. The silver lining for marijuana proponents is that support for legalization appears to be growing over time, albeit slowly. The last attempt to legalize marijuana in the Golden State in 1972 failed by a much larger margin, 65 to 35 percent. According to a post-election survey by Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner, voters favored the idea of legalization 49 to 41 percent, but they appeared to dislike the details of Prop 19—placing regulation in the hands of local government rather than the state, and preventing employers from prohibiting marijuana use by employees unless it “actually impairs” job performance.

South Dakota voters rejected Initiated Measure 13, which would have authorized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Oregon voters rejected Measure 74, which would have expanded the scope of the state’s existing medical marijuana law. The only victory for marijuana proponents came in Arizona, where voters narrowly approved—by5,000 votes out of 1.6 million cast—Proposition 203, which legalized medical marijuana. Before 2010, voters across the country generally had supported medical marijuana at the ballot box, with 12 of 15 medical marijuana measures passing.

“Soaking the rich.” Two of the year’s most discussed measures concerned surtaxes on the wealthy. Washington’s I-1098 would have established a state income tax on individuals earning more than $200,000, with revenue dedicated to supporting public education. Despite prominent support from Bill Gates Sr., (who filmed a “soak the rich” commercial in which he was dunked in a pool of water) and Microsoft founder Bill Gates Jr., the state’s voters rejected the measure 64 to 36 percent. An interesting aspect of the campaign was that prominent business leaders associated with Microsoft took opposing sides, as the initiative’s opponents included Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and cofounder Paul Allen. Voters apparently were persuaded by arguments that the tax would drive high-skill workers out of the state, and that once imposed, the income threshold would gradually fall, extending the tax to lower-income individuals.

The debate over I-1098 had overtones of the national discussion over whether the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire for high-income individuals. Some of the issues surrounding I-1098 are specific to Washington and may not apply to the Bush tax cuts, but the election results suggest that one should not assume voters are eager to raise revenue by targeting the rich. In January 2010, well before the tea party storm hit, Oregon voters rejected an attempt to repeal an income surtax on individuals earning more than $250,000.

Government health care. Voters in Arizona (Proposition 106), Missouri (Proposition C), and Oklahoma (Question 756) approved ballot measures declaring that individuals and business cannot be required to participate in a government health care system, and that individuals and businesses have a right to privately contract for medical services. These votes were a symbolic rejection of President Obama’s health care plan adopted earlier in the year. Bucking the trend, Colorado (Amendment 63) voters rejected a similar measure.

Secret votes in union elections. Voters approved several measures that were targeted at labor unions. Voters in Arizona (Proposition 103), South Carolina (Amendment 2) and Utah (Amendment A) approved propositions requiring secret ballots for union elections. These measures were intended to block the “card check” system that allows workers to unionize without a secret ballot by signing cards stating support for unionization. It represented another refutation of President Obama, who made approval of a federal card check law a prominent part of his campaign in 2008, although the rejections took place in three states that Obama lost in 2008.

Affirmative action. By a 60 to 40 percent margin, Arizona voters approved Proposition 107, which prohibits the state from “giving preferential treatment to or discriminating against any person or group” on the basis of race and ethnicity, effectively banning many forms of affirmative action. The state joins California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington, which previously approved such measures.

Other Issues across the Political Spectrum

Animals. Propositions relating to animals have been increasingly common, with 13 animal-related initiatives appearing over the past decade. Many of these measures have been promoted by animal rights groups in order to improve the living conditions of farm animals and limit hunting practices. Voters this year approved “pro-animal” Proposition B in Missouri—which established minimum space requirements for dog breeders—but rejected North Dakota’s Initiated Statutory Measure 2, which would have banned hunting in fenced game preserves. Partly in response to the growing success of animal rights activists, hunting and fishing advocates have been seeking to amend their state constitutions to guarantee residents the right to hunt and fish. Voters in Arkansas (Amendment 1), South Carolina (Amendment 1), and Tennessee (Amendment 1) approved such constitutional amendments in 2010, but voters rejected a similar measure in Arizona (Proposition 109).

Election reform. Dissatisfaction with the performance of American democracy continued to fuel election reform proposals. With redistricting looming nationwide following the census, California (Proposition 20) created a citizen commission to draw the lines for Congressional districts, Florida (Amendments 5 and 6) prohibited redistricting plans that favored incumbents or particular political parties, and Oklahoma (Question 748) made the state’s redistricting commission bipartisan. California (Proposition 27) declined to abolish its new citizen commission for redistricting the state legislature. Voters were not attracted to the idea of publicly funding campaigns, repealing a public funding law in Florida (Amendment 1) and rejecting a California initiative (Proposition 15) that would have established a public funding system for secretary of state. Oklahoma (Question 747) approved term limits for state officers and New Mexico (Amendment 2) rejected a proposal to weaken term limits for county officials. Oklahoma voters approved a law requiring proof of identity to vote (Question 746). Illinois voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing recall of the governor in response to the Rod Blagojevich scandal. And in June, California voters approved a nonpartisan top-two primary system (Proposition 13).

Big spending by big businesses. The most expensive campaign of the year involved California’s Proposition 16 on the June ballot, which would have required approval from two-thirds of voters before public funds could be used to enter the electricity business. The initiative was sponsored by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the main private electricity supplier for North and Central California, which contributed $43 million in support. Despite only $130,000 in formal campaign spending, opponents of Proposition 16 received extensive support from media outlets throughout the state and managed to defeat the initiative 53 to 47 percent.

Another expensive campaign involved California’s Proposition 17, which would have allowed car insurance companies to base premiums on a driver’s history of insurance coverage, presumably raising rates for drivers that were periodically uninsured and lowering rates for drivers with continuous coverage. Insurance giant Mercury Insurance sponsored the initiative and contributed $13 million to the campaign in favor. Opponents spent only $2 million against Proposition 17, but voters rejected the initiative 52 to 48 percent. The outcomes of the Proposition 16 and 17 campaigns support the conventional view that spending against a measure is more potent than spending in favor of a measure, and the uneven spending ratios in the campaigns undercut the claim that special interests can use their deep pockets to buy favorable legislation by outspending opponents.

Bonds. Voters decided 17 state-level bond measures in six states in 2010, approving 15 of them that authorized a total of $2 billion, and rejecting two that would have borrowed $660 million. In comparison, in 2008 voters approved 14 of 15 bond propositions, authorizing more than $13 billion. Sponsors pulled a huge water bond measure in California from the ballot before the election out of concern it would fail. Overall, legislatures seem to have become hesitant about borrowing, perhaps due to huge federal and state deficits that have begun worrying citizens across the country.

Rhode Island name change. Voters in Rhode Island rejected by more than a 3-to-1 margin a proposal to change the name of the state from “Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations” to simply “Rhode Island.” Proponents of the measure argued the reference to plantations in the name evokes the state’s slaveholding past.

California budget process. California is one of a small number of states that require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to approve the annual budget. Desperate for a solution to the recurrent nightmare of projected deficits, overdue budgets and state-issued IOUs, voters approved Proposition 25. It repealed the two-thirds rule in the hope that majority rule will restore fiscal sanity. Whether or not it will have that effect is not clear; the state still has in place a two-thirds requirement for tax increases. Voters approved a similar rule for fee increases, creating the possibility the legislature could approve a budget that authorizes spending but not be able to raise the revenue to pay for it.

Washington liquor stores. Washington voters rejected two initiatives that would have privatized its state-run retail liquor stores. Both initiatives proposed to replace lost state revenue by imposing a tax on liquor sales, but differed in how they regulated the distribution channel. I-1100, the more “free market” of the two, allowed retailers to purchase alcohol directly from manufacturers, while I-1105 required retailers to purchase through distributors. I-1100 was backed by retailer Costco, while I-1105 was backed by distributors, including Odom Corporation, a partner of the nation’s largest liquor distributor.

Louisiana retirement systems. Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring a supermajority for the legislature to increase benefits in public retirement systems.

California greenhouse gases. Proposition 23, an initiative sponsored by two Texas oil companies, proposed to suspend (until the economy improves) a state law passed in 2006 that requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to abandon a number of renewable and clean fuel requirements. The proposition was ahead in early polls, but a flood of money against it—as well as opposition from the current governor and both gubernatorial candidates—turned the tide, leading to a decisive 62 to 38 percent rejection.

  Download Table B: "Complete List of Statewide Ballot Propositions in 2010"


1This article uses referendums instead of referenda as the plural, following the Oxford English Dictionary and common practice.

2For detailed information on initiative adoption and provisions, see the appendixes of John G. Matsusaka, Forthe Many or the Few: The Initiative, Public Policy, and American Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2004) and M. Dane Waters, Initiative and Referendum Almanac(Carolina Academic Press, 2003).

3See Chapter 7 in Matsusaka, For the Many or the Few (2004).

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