2014 Ballot Propositions

Voters looked favorably on ballot propositions in 2014, approving 67 percent of the 158 measures they decided. Marijuana advocates scored important victories in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and minimum wage advocates continued their unbroken run of successful measures in five more states.

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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 executive director 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).

Voters decided 158 propositions in 2014, with 146 appearing on the Nov. 4 ballot. The total number of propositions was down 15 percent from the 186 propositions in 2012, well below the recent high point of 235 propositions in 1998, and the lowest total in an even-numbered year in the 21st century. The approval rate of 67 percent matches the approval rate in 2002 and 2004, which are the highest in the 21st century. 

The propositions were distributed across 42 states. The most active state was Louisiana, where voters approved six of 14 proposed constitutional amendments. Other busy states were North Dakota, with nine propositions, and Missouri and New Mexico, both with eight propositions. Most propositions (111) were placed on the ballot by state legislatures. These “legislative measures” were mostly bond proposals and constitutional amendments, both of which require popular approval in many states. Forty propositions were placed on the ballot by citizen petition; of these, 35 were “initiatives,” meaning proposals of new laws, while five were “referendums,” meaning proposals to repeal laws passed by the legislature. There were also five advisory propositions, one proposition placed on the ballot by a state commission and one proposition calling for a constitutional convention that was required by the state constitution.

See Table A for a summary of propositions by state and type in 2014, Table B for a year-by-year breakdown of ballot proposition activity since 2000, and Table C for a complete list of propositions decided in 2014. 

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Initiative Trends
Typically, the most visible and controversial propositions are initiatives. Initiatives usually attract the lion’s share of campaign contributions as well. Advocates view the initiative process as an important supplement to representative democracy that 2014 Ballot Propositions allows citizens to counteract the influence of special interests on elected officials, while opponents
view the process as increasing the influence of wealthy and organized interest groups that can fund petition drives and the subsequent election campaigns. 

The initiative, together with the referendum and recall, were quintessential Progressive-era reforms. South Dakota was the first state to adopt the process, in 1898, followed by Utah in 1900 and Oregon in 1902. By 1918, 19 states had adopted the process, and adoption has continued at the rate of about one state every 20 years. Mississippi was the last state to adopt the initiative process, in 1992, bringing the total number of states that allow initiatives to 24.1 The initiative process is widely available in states west of the Mississippi, but it is not a purely  Western  phenomenon. Some initiative states are in the Northeast (Maine, Massachusetts), South (Arkansas, Florida), and Central regions (Michigan, Ohio).

The total count of 35 initiatives in 2014 was down 30 percent from the 50 initiatives in 2012, and the lowest total in an even-numbered year since 1974, when only 19 initiatives reached the ballot. The number of initiatives in 2014 also was well below the peak number of 93 in 1996 during the last big initiative wave. The approval rate for initiatives in 2014 was 46 percent, above the long run historical average of 40 percent.

Initiative use overall appears to be waning from its peak in the mid-1990s for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Figure A shows the number of initiatives by decade, beginning in 1904 when the first initiatives appeared on the ballot in Oregon. Initiatives were common in the first four decades of the 20th century, particularly in the Progressive era that preceded the Great Depression. Many initiatives during this period were fueled by tensions between the new urban majorities in many states and the rural interests that still controlled state legislatures because district lines were not regularly redrawn to accommodate population changes. Initiative activity tailed off in the middle decades of the 20th century, with a trough of 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 after Proposition 13 set a new record for the number of initiatives, peaking with 394 from 1991 to 2000. Voters have decided 96 initiatives so far in the current decade, well below the pace in the preceding two decades.

In terms of individual states, Oregon remains the overall leader, having voted on 367 initiatives since adopting the process in 1902. California is a close second with 357 initiatives since adopting the process in 1911. Rounding out the top five are Colorado with 224, North Dakota with 192, and Washington with 174. Initiative activity remains particularly high in the Western half of the country. East of the Mississippi River, Arkansas has voted on 123 initiatives, the most of any state. In the 21st century, California leads with 88 initiatives, followed by 64 in Oregon, 49 in Colorado and 46 Washington. These patterns highlight that the West Coast, particularly the Pacific states, have become the country’s clear leaders in the practice of direct democracy to the point that citizen lawmaking is seen as a central feature of the political process in those states.

Multistate Issues

Every year, some issues appear on the ballot in multiple states. This may happen as a result of a coordinated campaign by an interest group, or more often, as individual states respond to a common event, such as a court ruling, or learn from each other. Multistate issues can take on a life of their own and spread across the country if they meet with voter approval initially and reveal unexpected popular support for an issue. For this reason, multistate issues are worth watching as possible leading indicators of national trends.

Perhaps the biggest ballot proposition story of the year was the approval of initiatives to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. Alaska’s Measure 2, which legalized possession of 1 ounce of marijuana and manufacture and sale of the drug, was approved by a margin of 53-47; Oregon’s Measure 91, which legalized possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana and charged the state with regulating the sale of 

the drug, was approved by a margin of 56-44; and the District of Columbia’s Initiative 71, which legalized possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana and called on the city council to regulate sales, was approved by a huge margin, 70-30. Coming on the heels of successful legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington in 2012— and the medical marijuana campaigns that have legalized marijuana for medical uses in almost half of the states—the status of marijuana has been transformed in just a few years. The country (or at least parts of the country) appears to be moving in a libertarian direction on marijuana. 

Even the solitary setback for marijuana advocates in 2014 reveals growing support for legalization. In Florida, Amendment 2, which would have permitted use of marijuana for medical purposes, received 58 percent of the votes in favor, but it failed to gain approval because the state requires 60 percent approval for constitutional amendments. The remarkable success rate for legalization initiatives so far is likely to encourage proponents to try to expand the legalization beachhead, with the remaining West Coast state of California a natural next step.

The legal status of the various laws permitting marijuana use is somewhat ambiguous. The initiatives all conflict with federal law that still criminalizes possession and sale of the drug, and federal law is nominally supreme. Federal authorities, however, have not tried to enforce federal law in the states that have approved legalization, so there appears to be a willingness to defer to state law in these cases. The District of Columbia is a more complicated case because of Congress’ oversight role. Following passage of the initiative, Congress responded by prohibiting use of public funds to regulate marijuana. The status quo appears to be that possession and use is permitted in the city, but sales are not permitted. The tendency for a successful initiative in one state to stimulate similar initiatives in other states has been often noted, with California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13 the most famous example. The spillovers, which usually happen in adjoining states, appear to happen for two reasons. A successful vote in one state demonstrates the existence of an electoral constituency for an issue, which encourages interested groups to organize and fund a campaign. A successful initiative also has a demonstration effect once the policy is implemented.2 

A primary concern in the minds of many citizens is the possibility that marijuana legalization will spur crime and create a population of addicts. In the few years since the first legalization, these fears have not come to bear in the adopting states; if this pattern continues, support is likely to grow for legalization in other states and nationally. 

Minimum Wage

Voters in five states—Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota—approved proposals to increase the minimum wage. None of the elections were close, with an average margin of victory of 26 percent. The unbroken run of success for state-level minimum wage propositions in the 21st century now extends to 15 and includes both traditionally liberal and conservative states. At the local level, voters in Oakland and San Francisco also approved increases in the minimum wage. With voters displaying a healthy appetite for increasing the minimum wage, we can expect to see a continuing flow of similar proposals in the next few years. Prior to Nov. 4, there was much discussion whether the minimum wage initiatives would attract Democratic voters to polls and help Democratic candidates in other elections. Democrats did not do particularly well in any of the minimum wage states, suggesting that spillover effects were minor or nonexistent. This reinforces the observation that ballot propositions have their own dynamics and rarely spill over into candidate elections in a material way. The absence of spillovers could be because the issue is not important enough to attract nonvoters to the polls, or because its appeal cuts across party lines and attracts both Democrats and Republicans. The large majorities in favor suggest minimum wage increases appeal to voters of both parties.

  Download "Table C: Complete List of Statewide Ballot Propositions in 2014" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

GMO Foods

One of the more interesting recent trends has been the emergence of genetically modified food as an issue in ballot proposition campaigns. These propositions are being promoted by groups opposed to genetically modified food; they do not seek to ban such food, but rather to require its labeling at the point of sale. The campaigns have been built around the idea that consumers have right to know what is “in” their food, but the long run hope apparently is that consumers will refuse to purchase GMO products, driving them from the market.

Voters rejected two GMO labeling initiatives in 2014. Colorado’s Prop 105 was turned down by a large margin, 35-65, while Oregon’s Measure 92 was defeated by a mere 837 votes out of total 1.5 million cast. These defeats follow the rejection of GMO labeling initiatives in 2012 in California (49-51) and in 2013 in Washington (49-51). (The first such initiative was Oregon’s Measure 27 in 2002 that was crushed 30-70.) These losses came after initial opinion polls suggested strong support for the ini tiatives; it was only after intense campaigns that enough voters shifted their views to cause a defeat. 

Opponents of these initiatives have outspent supporters, often by substantial margins. For example, supporters in Oregon spent about $11 million compared to $20 million spent by opponents. Most of the money on both sides has come from businesses with commercial interests at stake. In Oregon, “yes” funding came from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, an organic soap supplier, while much “no” funding came from Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsico, Coca-Cola and other food companies. In addition to heavy negative campaigning, voters appear to have been swayed by editorial opinions. 

Most newspapers in the initiative states have come out against GMO labeling, sometimes based on the risk of driving up food prices, but also based on questions about the underlying science and whether GMO foods ought to be demonized. While the most recent results give GMO labeling proponents a perfect record of futility, having lost all five elections, they may be poised for a breakthrough win in the near future. This possibility is suggested by the extremely narrow nature of the losses in California, Oregon and Washington, which suggest that opinion is divided closely enough that under the right conditions, GMO labeling can win. At the same time, even if GMO labelers achieve a success in the near future, because of the difficulty they are having in states that should be the most receptive to this idea, the potential for the idea to spread across the rest of the country seems limited.

Tax issues are the most common subject of ballot propositions historically. Fifteen tax-related measures were on the ballot this year. Voters across the nation showed an aversion to new taxes and a willingness to grant exemptions to narrowly targeted groups, such as spouses of veterans who die in the line of duty. Four states approved tax limitation amendments: Georgia voters approved 74-26 an amendment that prohibits any future increase in income tax rates; Tennessee voters approved 67-33 an amendment that bans state and local income or payroll taxes; North Dakota voters approved 76-24 an amendment to prohibit real estate transfer taxes; and Massachusetts voters approved 53-47 a proposal to stop indexing the gas tax. Nevada voters rejected 21-79 a proposal to impose a 2 percent tax on business profits, with the revenue dedicated to schools.

Bond Issues
Many states require voter approval before state bonds can be issued. After a lull following the recession, legislatures are increasingly willing to request bond authorization from the voters, and voters seem amenable to taking on more debt. In 2014, legislatures placed 19 bond measures before the voters in nine states, with an aggregate value of $16.4 billion. Voters responded by approving all but one proposal, for a total of $12.1 billion. The biggest proposal was California’s Proposition 1, which authorized a hefty $7.12 billion for water projects; it was decisively approved by a 67-33 margin. Three other hefty bond proposals passed: New York voters approved $2 billion for capital projects in schools; Ohio voters approved $1.875 billion for transportation and water projects; and California voters approved $600 million for housing for low-income veterans. Alabama (1), Maine (6), New Mexico (3), and Rhode Island (4) also approved one or more bond propositions each, mostly for smaller projects. 

The only loser was Oregon’s Measure 86, which  would have allowed the state to borrow $4.3 billion to subsidize tuition for college students; voters rejected the measure by a 43-57 margin. Not only did Measure 86 propose an enormous amount of borrowing given the population of the state, but it also deviated from traditional budgeting principles that debt should be used for long-lived capital expenditures, not to fund transfers. 

Another issue that was contested in multiple states in 2014 was gambling, with a total of 10 gambling-related propositions appearing in nine states. Voters in Kansas, South Carolina and Tennessee amended their constitutions to allow charitable and other nonprofit organizations to operate games of chance for small-scale fundraising. Voters in Rhode Island and South Dakota approved proposals to allow existing gambling operations—Newport Grand and Deadwood City, respectively—to offer a full menu of casino games. Gambling proposals fared worse in Colorado and Massachusetts, where proposals to allow wagering on dog races were rejected by large margins; and in Missouri, where voters rejected a proposal to add a new state lottery program with revenue dedicated to veterans programs. In California, voters repealed a gaming compact that would have allowed an Indian tribe to establish a casino outside the borders of its traditional reservation. 

1 For detailed information on initiative adoption and provisions and a discussion of pros and cons about the process, see John G. Matsusaka, For the 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).

2 For rigorous evidence on how initiatives diffuse policy, with respect to tax-and-expenditure limits, see Ellen Moule and Nichlas W. Weller, “Learning in Laboratories of Democracy: The Diffusion of Political Information via Direct Democracy in the U.S. States,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly, 2011.