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What's on Your State Ballot?

It's easy to get lost in the drama of the presidential contest. But some of the most important issues this election will play out at the state level.
 
 
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Editor's note: Reprinted from the Summer 2008 issue of Ms. magazine, now on newsstands.

If a "definition of personhood" initiative gets passed in Colorado this November, you might be investigated if you experience a miscarriage.

If an initiative to end affirmative action is passed in Arizona this fall, you may lose business if you're a woman who receives government contracts.

If a marriage-discrimination initiative passes in California and you're a lesbian newlywed, you'll have to cut short the honeymoon.

In the November election, voters will be deciding whether to roll back equal-opportunity programs for women and people of color, discriminate against gays and lesbians in marriage and adoption, cut public education and threaten women's health care. The big question is whether voters will buy what these ballot initiatives are selling.

According to public opinion research conducted for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center this year, voters are heading into the election season with serious concerns about the country and a strong feeling that it is a rudderless boat. Perhaps most disconcerting, voters feel America is falling behind, and that the next generation is unlikely to have it better than this generation does. The research also shows that voters want to address the big problems the country faces.

Unfortunately, many right-wing-backed ballot initiatives don't give voters the solutions they're looking for. Instead, conservatives are using these initiatives as divisive tactics to try to distract voters. A good example is California businessman Ward Connerly's efforts to roll back equal opportunity in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma (see Ms., Winter 2008). Connerly's initiatives would rewrite state constitutions to ban affirmative-action programs for women and people of color. But the drive for these ballot measures does not necessarily come from within these states: Connerly has been using mercenary signature-gatherers and funds collected by his California organization from undisclosed donors. To date, he's failed to gain enough support in Missouri to qualify for the ballot, had to withdraw his petitions in Oklahoma because of signature fraud and faces a lawsuit over 69,000 potentially fraudulent signatures collected in Colorado. In Arizona and Nebraska, Connerly has submitted his petitions and is awaiting approval to place the initiative on the ballot.

In the arena of women's reproductive rights, the right wing is continuing its assault this year with anti-choice ballot initiatives in four states: California, Colorado, Montana and South Dakota. Californians are being asked to pass a parental notification measure that has already failed twice; South Dakotans will be asked to approve an only slightly less draconian version of an abortion ban that failed in 2006. The "definition of personhood" initiative in Colorado -- which seeks to overturn Roe v. Wade by redefining personhood as the moment of fertilization -- could outlaw certain forms of birth control and ban or restrict common fertility treatments in which multiple eggs are fertilized but only some are introduced into the mother's womb. A supporter of a similar, failed Montana initiative suggested that women could even be investigated to see what they might have done to cause their miscarriages.

Finally, in California, an initiative has qualified for the ballot that would rewrite the constitution and overturn the recent court decision that ruled gay marriage was constitutional. If passed, only marriage between a man and a woman would be valid or recognized in California. Some believe that this issue will put California into play for John McCain in November by turning out conservative votes, but progressives are energized to protect the court's decision, and public opinion continues to move against barring marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

Arizonans, too, will vote this fall on a constitutional gay-marriage ban, and Floridians face a measure that would outlaw recognition of all same-sex partnerships. Still in the signature-collection process is an Arkansas initiative to take away adoption rights from "all unmarried couples" (i.e., gay couples).

Progressive women can feel hopeful about a number of other "kitchen table" initiatives on the ballot this fall designed to help families weather the economic recession. In Missouri, for example, signatures have already been submitted for an initiative requiring the state to produce 15 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2021. Research by the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center shows that voters believe this is both achievable and necessary to free Americans from dependence on foreign oil and reduce global warming.

Several health initiatives are also either gathering signatures or have qualified for the November ballot, responding to the anxiety of voters about losing health insurance during these tough economic times. Montana is circulating an initiative that would extend health-care coverage to all of the state's uninsured children, and in Wisconsin, local health-care-reform referendums are moving forward that would ask the legislature to take action on universal health care.

Additionally, a home-health-care initiative on the ballot in Missouri would help the elderly and disabled to continue living independently by better recruiting, training and stabilizing the state's home-care workforce. In Ohio, petitions are being circulated for a Healthy Families initiative that would guarantee seven days paid sick leave, and in the city of Milwaukee, a similar measure extending paid sick leave is likely to make the ballot. Michigan activists are stumping for an initiative allowing voters to restore the legality of stem-cell research.

While the country engages in a big national election, it's important to remember that "all politics is local." Be sure to come prepared with the facts about your local initiatives, so that you know what sort of change you're voting for.

For more on information on state initiatives, see www.ballot.org.

For more on breaking feminist issues, see the Summer 2008 issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com.

 
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