A Guide to 2012 Issues on 2011 State Ballots

It's a bit of a sleeper election this November, with just two states electing governors, but there are a number of major political victories up for grabs lower down on the ballot. In Ohio and Mississippi in particular, voters will weigh in directly on issues that could frame debate — and decisively shape turnout — for the presidential elections come 2012. 

Collective Bargaining for Public Workers

A Wisconsin-style law limiting the collective bargaining of public employees in Ohio is up for repeal on the November ballot in Ohio. The law, which prohibits strikes by public employee union, eliminates negotiations on benefits, and emphasizes merit over seniority in promotions -  passed the legislature and was signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in the weeks after the legislative standoff and massive protests over similar legislation in Wisconsin.

Opponents of the law quickly collected about 3,000 signatures to put the law up for voter approval on the November ballot. The results will have both major political and fiscal implications. If it is voted down, Democrats will seize the results as a referendum on the state’s Republican leadership in this crucial 2012 swing state. And if the margin is as wide as current polls suggest – 25 points in a Quinnipiac poll last week – it leaves open big questions about what legislators will do next, and how much incentive unions will have to negotiate, to close budget shortfalls for local governments and school districts.

Health Care Reform

Ohio voters will also vote on a referendum of sorts on the federal health care overhaul, with a proposed amendment to the state constitution to prohibit the government from compelling citizens to buy health insurance. Voters narrowly supported the amendment in a Quinnipiac poll in July, so if Democrats are looking for vindication with a win on collective bargaining for public employees question, there could very well be a symbolic draw in this swing state.

Voter Fraud and Voter Access

In the last general election before voters will elect the next president, two states are considering ballot questions that come down a partisan question: does tightening rules to vote protect the integrity of the elections, or do they create unnecessary barriers to participation?

Mississippi voters will consider whether to join five states -- South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Kansas – that created a new photo ID requirement to vote. In those other five states, lawmakers passed the new requirement. The Mississippi legislature did not pass any of the multiple voter ID bills proposed this year, but a successful petition effort put the question directly to voters.  A bill failed in the Mississippi legislature this year,

Even if voters approve the constitutional amendment, it will still face federal scrutiny.  Mississippi is one of nine states that, according to the federal Voting Rights Act, requires a sign-off from the Justice Department that any voting rule change doesn’t unfairly target minorities. (The new photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas are still pending Justice Department approval.)  

Voters in Maine will consider repealing a new law that eliminates same-day registration and voting in the state, a practice that’s been in place in the state since 1973. Seven other states allow same-day registration and voting. Republicans in Maine have tried to repeal the practice for years, but the GOP gains in last year’s midterm elections – when Republicans won the governorship and control of both houses of the legislature for the first time since 1974 – made it happen this year.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, which backs eliminating the practice, says requiring at least a two-day grace period between registering and voting is a safeguard against fraud. And Maine’s Secretary of State, a Republican, backed the law ending the practice because it would ease the burden on local clerks on Election Day.

Forces in favor of keeping same-day registration and voting in place, however, says it’s a simple question of maximizing access to the polls. They collected more than 68,000 petition signatures to put a repeal of the new law on this fall’s ballot, which also temporary suspended its implementation. According to an analysis by Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan group that encourages voter engagement, Maine had the highest turnout of any state in the 2010 midterms, and ranked third in 2008 – behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, two other states with Election Day registration.

Supporters of repealing Maine's new law (that is, those who favor keeping same-day registration and voting) outspent opponents by a 3-to-one margin, but opponents are ramping up their spending in the days before the election. In fact, a group opposed to the repeal was fined by the state this week for not filing disclosing a campaign expenditure on ads on time, adding rancorous charges about who is funding either side to the policy debate about registration. Given the partisan split in this debate, it could be viewed referendum on the sweeping Republican gains in the state in 2010 – but there’s a key difference. Gov. Paul LePage, the Republican elected with Tea Party backing, won last year with just 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race. This question will be settled by a clear majority.

Voters in Washington state are considering a much less controversial voting ballot question. It would clarify an inconsistency in the state Constitution to make clear that voters need only reside in the state for 30 days before they can vote for president, down from 60 days. Thirty days is the required residency to vote for any other office in the state, and no one has publicly opposed the change.

There was also a petition effort this summer in Ohio to repeal a new law shortening the state’s early voting period, organized in part by Obama's reelection campaign. If the the Ohio Secretary of State certifies the signatures, that question will be on the ballot in November 2012, which means Ohio's early voting period in 2012 will be the same length as it was in 2008, when Obama won the swing state by four points. 


A second, and even more fiercely fought, ballot campaign in Mississippi puts the question of abortion rights right on the ballot. Voters will consider an amendment to the state constitution to declare a fertilized egg a person. Passage of the amendment to the Mississippi state constitution could set up a direct legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. It could also have the effect of criminalizing some fertility and birth control procedures.

It comes at a time when national polls show moral questions like abortion and gay marriage are among the least important to voters in the 2012 election, trumped by concerns about the economy, unemployment, and the federal budget deficit.

Similar questions were on the ballot in Colorado in 2008 and 2010 but failed. Personhood USA, the Colorado-based group coordinating petition drives across the country, and hopes to get similar questions on the ballot in other states in 2012 – including the swing states of Florida and Ohio.

Missing, for Now: Gay Marriage

The perennial ballot question through the 2000’s is taking a break this November, but the gay marriage ban amendment is poised to make comeback on 2012 ballots. It’s already set to appear on the May primary ballot in North Carolina. The timing of the election – in the spring rather than on the November 2012 ballot, when the state will be a crucial presidential swing state – was decisive in getting the necessary votes from legislative Democrats for the vote to put the constitutional amendment before voters. get the question on the ballot.