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State Ballot Measures: 11 Hot Topics in 2012's Other Electoral Frontline

From raising taxes and legalizing pot to reviving labor rights, voters in 37 states will be busy.

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All of these topics—taxes, unions, democracy issues, marriage, pot, Obamacare, illegal immigrants—are on the ballot in more than one state. But there also are a handful of single-state issues that are important and could make waves beyond their borders.

8. Affirmative Action
Oklahoma’s State Question 759, put on the ballot by legislators, would prohibit any discrimination or preferable treatment on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity and national origin. It is designed to undermine state affirmative action programs and is part of a trend that can be seen in other South-Central states, such as Texas and Kansas, which have passed tougher voter ID laws in response to growing minority populations. The common thread in all these steps is trying to preserve the white governing class’ power.

9. Death Penalty

California’s Proposition 34 would abolish capital punishment. The measure would also be retroactive, commuting the sentence of all condemned prisoners to life without the possibility of parole. It would also create a $100 million fund to investigate unsolved murders. California and 32 other states now have the death penalty.

10. Assisted Suicide

Massachusetts’ Question 2 is an initiative that would allow a terminally ill person to be given a lethal injection. To date, there have been five state votes on "death with dignity" questions. Washington first rejected it in 1991 but approved it in 2008. California and Michigan voters rejected it in the 1990s. But Oregon passed it in 1994.

11. Food Labeling

California’s Proposition 37 would require that food labels disclose if any ingredients come from genetically altered products. There have been a number of labeling laws passed by smaller states and cities in recent years—over milk hormones, cell phone radiation—as well as a new congressional tobacco labeling law. All have ended in litigation before federal judges who have been hostile to public health labeling. The California measure, if successful, would again make this a national issue.  

But just as California’s food labeling proposal could face an uphill legal fight if it passes, so too could many of the right-wing proposals that conflict with state constitutions—such as the Washington measure requiring a legislative super-majority to raise taxes. Indeed, many ballot measures are at the cutting edge of the political arena, meaning that even if they are approved by voters—which is by no means certain—they could very well be challenged in court and thrown out by judges.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).