Ballot Measure Wrap-Up

November 21, 2006 · 12:01 AM EST

This year was a busy one for ballot measures. But in many cases, voters weren’t buying what was on offer.

Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks ballot measures for the NCSL, identified 17 measures that sought to limit government, and of these, she was surprised to discover that only one passed. “The whole reason the initiative process was created in this country was to limit government,” she said. “And these limiting-government sorts of measures are historically very successful on the ballot.”

The results buoyed liberals who have increasingly used initiatives as a political tool. Most notably, voters easily approved all six statewide measures to increase the minimum wage. But liberals also chalked up other successes – and not always in states that experienced a pro-Democratic wave in Congressional or statewide races.

In South Dakota, a hard-line anti-abortion measure went down to defeat, as did a far-reaching initiative called Jail for Judges that would have stripped judges of their protections from being sued. Voters in Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon also turned down measures to curb judges.

Liberals also scored wins on Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, measures that limit government spending. After six TABORs were stripped from the ballot prior to the election, voters in Maine, Nebraska, and Oregon rejected the rest. In the meantime, Washington state voters solidly rejected a measure to repeal the state’s estate tax and South Dakota voted down a property tax limit.

While voters in seven states approved measures to ban same-sex marriage, Arizonans narrowly rejected the same-sex marriage ban on their ballot – the first time that any such ban has been voted down.

A second generally conservative state, South Dakota, saw its same-sex marriage ban approved by the surprisingly small margin of four points. In the meantime, a legislature-written measure in Colorado to create gay domestic partnerships short of marriage failed narrowly.

In another loss for social conservatives, Missouri voters narrowly backed a high-profile measure to promote embryonic stem-cell research to cure. The Missouri stem-cell measure “was driven by biotech Republicans, and they’re lucky they won it,” Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

“They outspent the opponents by probably one of the biggest margins of the year – $31 million to $929,000- and still they only eked by.”

Measures in California and Oregon to require parental notification and a waiting period for minors seeking an abortion both failed, though fairly narrowly.

Elsewhere, strict anti-smoking measures passed in Arizona, Nevada and Ohio – even though each state’s ballot had a similar-sounding, but less-stringent, measure backed by hospitality or tobacco interests. In the past, voters have often thrown up their hands at such pairings and rejected both measures – but not this year. The results “indicate some notable sophistication on the part of voters,” Bowser said.

Animal welfare groups, which have had a strong though not perfect record of success with initiatives in recent years, chalked up victories in Arizona, where voters easily passed a measure to set minimum care standards for breeding pigs, and in Michigan, where voters by a wide margin rejected a measure that would have legalized the hunting of mourning doves. But Georgia hunters won overwhelming passage of a measure that requires the state to preserve the “tradition of fishing and hunting.”

Voters approved eight ballot measures designed to sidestep the Supreme Court decision allowing governments to use eminent domain to benefit private developers, while voters in California, Idaho, and Washington rejected property rights initiatives that critics say could have gutted local zoning regulations. Arizona voters, however, approved a similar property rights measure by a 2-to-1 margin.

“It was a good start to the property rights movement,” said conservative activist Grover Norquist. “We’ll see more of these.”

Voters in the Golden State approved about $43 billion in bonds for infrastructure expansion and maintenance. Analysts credited their success to the bipartisan nature with which the measures were drawn up.

However, voters in California were not persuaded by a ballot measure designed to use revenues from taxing in-state energy producers to fund $4 billion in alternative energy research over 10 years. The proposition, generously funded and backed by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and a bevy of Hollywood figures, failed by a 10-point margin, thanks to a withering advertising attack by the oil industry that cost perhaps $100 million. The industry argued that that the tax increase would be passed on to consumers.

Voters in Washington state were friendlier to renewable energy. Voters there narrowly approved an initiative that sets benchmarks for electricity generation using alternative sources.

The only health care measure on the ballot this year – to allow Oregon residents without prescription drug coverage to participate in a state program – passed by a 3-to-1 margin. But Oregon voters rejected a measure that would have prohibited the use of credit scores when calculating insurance premiums – a win for the insurance industry, which mounted a several-million-dollar ad campaign against it.

Conservatives also chalked up some big wins on Election day. Michigan voters easily passed a measure to curb affirmative action, while Wisconsin voters gave solid support for a non-binding measure on whether to bring back the death penalty.

On immigration, Arizona voters backed a package of four propositions designed to crack down on illegal immigration. All passed with at least 70 percent of the vote. More narrowly, Colorado passed a referendum that bars businesses from deducting wages paid to illegal aliens, and one that directs the attorney general to sue the federal government to enforce immigration laws.

On law enforcement, Arizonans acted to limit probation for methamphetamine convicts, Californians increased penalties for sex crimes and Hawaii allowed legislators to set the standard for conviction in cases of sex crimes committed against minors.

North Dakota voters rejected a proposal to require joint custody of children after divorce.

Oregon voters declined to restore a term limit rule for legislators that had been struck down by the courts.

One thing is certain: A lot of money was spent on ballot measures this year. According to BISC, preliminary numbers suggest that proponents and opponents of 12 of the most expensive initiatives together spent $329 million. Given this small sample of races, it’s hard to guess whether this year’s outlay approaches a record. California’s renewable energy measure set a spending record for a single initiative, with more than $153 million forked out by both sides.