Voters opted to legalize marijuana in Michigan, protect transgender rights in Massachusetts and restore voting rights to over one million ex-felons in Florida, in a series of ballot questions posed during the U.S. midterm elections.
In all, 155 statewide initiatives were on the ballot across 37 states on Tuesday. Most were drafted by state legislatures, but 64 resulted from citizen-initiated campaigns, including many of the most eye-catching proposals.
Michigan legalizes marijuana
Michigan voters made their state the first in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana by passing a ballot measure that will allow people 21 or older to buy and use the drug. A similar measure was defeated in North Dakota, meaning there are now 10 states that allow recreational use of pot. Missouri became the 31st state to approve the medical use of marijuana, while Utah was considering that step.
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“Western and northeastern states have led the way on legalizing marijuana, but the victory in Michigan powerfully demonstrates the national reach of this movement,” said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Sanchez-Moreno also questioned how long the federal government could resist the legalization wave.
Massachusetts protects transgender rights
In the first statewide referendum on transgender rights, Massachusetts voters on Tuesday beat back a repeal attempt and reaffirmed a 2016 law extending nondiscrimination protections to transgender people, including their use of public bathrooms and locker rooms.
The outcome in Massachusetts was a huge relief to LGBT-rights activists, who feared that a vote to repeal the 2016 law would prompt a wave of similar efforts to roll back protections in other states. Already, some protections at the federal level are under threat from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
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“When transgender rights are being threatened nationally, we absolutely must preserve the rights we have secured at the state level,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Florida allows more than one million ex-felons to vote
Civil-rights activists scored a major victory in Florida, where voters approved a ballot measure that will enable more than one million ex-felons to regain their voting rights. That could alter the future election landscape in the nation’s most populous swing state.
With the vote in Florida, most felons will automatically have their voting rights restored when they complete their sentences or go on probation. The amendment exempts those convicted of sex offenses and murder.
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Supporters said the state’s current system was too onerous. It required felons to wait at least five years after completing their sentence before they could file a request with the governor and cabinet. About 1.5 million people are affected. Nearly all states allow felons to vote after completing their sentences.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida affiliate, said the result would remove “an ugly stain” from the state constitution.
“For too long, Florida has been an extreme outlier — our state’s lifetime voting ban was the single most powerful voter suppression tactic in the country,” he said.
Florida bans greyhound racing
Floridians also approved a measure aimed at phasing out greyhound racing in the state, the last stronghold of the sport in the U.S.
The greyhound measure will ban betting on greyhound races starting in 2021. The sport remains active in five other states, but may be too small-scale to survive.
Proponents said racing is inherently cruel, pointing to the average of two deaths weekly from illness or injury among Florida’s 8,000 racing dogs.
Minimum wage increases
A minimum wage increase was approved in two states. An Arkansas measure will raise the wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 by 2021; Missouri’s will gradually raise the $7.85 minimum wage to $12 an hour.
Colorado, Oregon and Arizona shoot down controversial questions
While liberal-leaning groups succeeded in getting some of their favoured policy proposals on the ballot in Republican-controlled states, the partisan pattern was reversed in a few states.
In Democratic-leaning Oregon, conservatives unsuccessfully targeted two policies. Voters there upheld a law allowing the use of state money to pay for low-income women to have abortions, and also reaffirmed a “sanctuary state” law forbidding law enforcement agencies from using state resources or personnel to arrest people whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.
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Climate change was an issue in Arizona, where voters defeated a measure that would have required 50 per cent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Colorado voters rejected a measure that could have sharply reduced oil and gas drilling, including the method known as fracking, by requiring new oil and gas wells to be farther from occupied buildings than allowed under current law.
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Gerrymandering and Medicaid
Proposals to change the redistricting process so it’s potentially less partisan were approved in Missouri, Colorado and Michigan. A similar proposal was on the ballot in Utah.
Medicaid expansion was another multi-state topic, on the ballot because Republican-led legislatures refused to take advantage of expanded coverage offered under President Barack Obama’s health care law. Nebraska and Idaho voters approved measures to expand Medicaid health coverage to tens of thousands of low-income residents.