The Ballot Measures to Watch: Marijuana, Gig Workers, Ranked Choice Voting, and More

Voters stand in line for early voting in Massachusetts. The state has a ballot initiative that, if passed, would implement ranked choice voting.

Voters stand in line for early voting in Massachusetts. The state has a ballot initiative that, if passed, would implement ranked choice voting. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer


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Voters in 32 states are considering 120 statewide ballot measures ranging on topics from affirmative action to income taxes.

While most attention for the upcoming election is focused on the presidential race, voters in 32 states will also have the chance to weigh in on 120 ballot initiatives this year. Some of the measures would make big changes in states, such as changing income tax policy or legalizing recreational marijuana. 

Marijuana for years now has been a ballot initiative staple, and this year is no different—although some of the states that will consider these measures are far more conservative than the forerunners in the marijuana movement. Voters in four states—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota—will decide whether to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana. This is the second election in a row that marijuana has made it onto the ballot in Arizona, after a narrow rejection in 2016. New Jersey’s measure arrives through legislative referral, not a signature drive, after state lawmakers failed to pass a measure in 2019 and instead decided to send the issue to voters. In an additional two states—South Dakota and Mississippi—voters will weigh in on medical marijuana. South Dakota is the first state to consider medical and recreational ballot initiatives in the same election; one recent poll indicates medical use seems likely to pass, while recreational marijuana is too close to call. In other drug news, a measure on the Washington D.C. ballot would effectively decriminalize magic mushrooms. Psychedelics and a host of other common drugs are up for legalization in Oregon, along with a measure that would create the nation’s first therapeutic psychedelics program for treatment resistant depression and other conditions.

Ranked choice voting is being considered by voters in Massachusetts and Alaska. Proponents of the initiatives say that letting voters rank their candidates instead of choosing just one will provide more realistic chances for third party candidates. Maine will be the first state to allow ranked choice voting for presidential candidates this year, and a host of cities allow the practice in municipal elections. The Alaska measure would also create a “top four” primary system where the four candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. Another voting-related measure on the ballot in three states—Alabama, Colorado, and Florida—would change the language around voting from “every citizen can vote” to “only citizens can vote.” It’s a largely theatrical measure that would force no changes in Alabama or Florida. But in Colorado, it would ban 17-year-olds from voting in primaries, something they’re allowed to do now if they’ll turn 18 by the general election. 

Colorado voters will also decide on a statewide paid family leave program, marking the first time a ballot initiative has dealt with the issue. The nine existing paid family leave programs were all established by legislators. Colorado’s system would give parents 12 weeks of paid leave and would be funded through a payroll tax.

As usual, there’s a jumble of tax-related measures on the ballot—19 of them in 12 states. The majority are about property, income, and tobacco taxes. The most significant among them is one in Illinois that would replace the state’s flat income tax with a graduated income tax, joining 32 other states who use the progressive system. The proposal has the support of billionaire governor J.B. Pritzker, who says the strapped-for-cash state needs the money. But the measure has drawn the opposition of Kenneth Griffin, CEO of the investment firm Citadel, who poured over $53 million into a campaign against the measure. Other tax measures include an Arizona proposition to increase taxes on people earning more than $250,000 to raise money for education and an Alaska measure that would increase taxes on the oil industry, while proposals in Colorado and Oregon would increase taxes on cigarettes.

California is considering several big measures. One would repeal a ballot initiative from 1996 that banned affirmative action practices in public employment, education, and contracting. Civil liberties groups have lined up in support of the measure, along with the University of California Board of Regents—which is significant given that the 1996 ballot initiative was sponsored by a member of that board. The new measure is opposed by several education groups, including Students for Fair Admissions, the group behind the Abigail Fisher lawsuit against the University of Texas and the lawsuit against Harvard University alleging discrimination against Asian American applicants.

California voters will also decide on the most expensive ballot initiative this election cycle, a measure that would define app-based drivers as independent contractors. The initiative would effectively override AB 5, a law rolled out this year that seeks to define these gig workers as employees and provide them with benefits like health insurance. Companies like Lyft, Uber, and Doordash have poured more than $200 million into the campaign, the most ever spent on a ballot initiative in the state.The proposition is opposed by most large unions in the state (excluding those representing law enforcement), civil liberties groups like the ACLU, and Gig Workers Rising, a community organizing group for app drivers.

Finally, California voters will decide on three criminal justice reform measures. One would replace cash bail systems with risk assessments, one would require DNA collection for certain misdemeanors, and another would allow people with felony convictions to vote while they’re on parole.

Voters in Missouri and Virginia could reshape how redistricting happens. A Virginia initiative would create a redistricting commission composed of citizens and state lawmakers. In Missouri, a ballot initiative would repeal a different ballot measure approved in 2018 that created a nonpartisan position responsible for state legislative redistricting. The current measure calls for the return of bipartisan redistricting commissions.

Term limits for elected officials could change in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri. Arkansas has an initiative that would change the term limits of state legislators from 16 years throughout a lifetime to 12 consecutive years with a chance to return after a four-year break. Kentucky’s measure would increase the terms of district attorneys and judges. Missouri’s initiative would limit the secretary of state, attorney general, lieutenant governor, and state auditor to two terms.

Abortion is on the ballot in Colorado and Louisiana. Colorado’s measure would create a gestational term limit for abortion at 22 weeks (the state currently has no limit). Louisiana’s measure would amend the state constitution to say there is no legal right to abortion and no state funding can be allocated to it. 

Other items on state ballots include a change to the state flag in Mississippi, a change to the official state name in Rhode Island, a cap on payday loan interest in Nebraska, and a requirement that electric utilities get 50% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030 in Nevada. Utah is also considering language changes in their state constitution with two initiatives: one that would remove language allowing slavery as a criminal punishment and one that would replace gendered language with gender-netural language. And for the sixth time in five decades, Puerto Ricans will vote on whether they want statehood.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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