Abortion, slavery and marijuana: Here are the ballot questions to watch in 2022 midterms

Forget waiting for Congress or state legislatures to act. This year’s midterm elections are offering voters an opportunity to shape public policy directly in the form of state ballot initiatives on major national issues.

The country witnessed the power of those referendums when voters in Kansas, typically considered a safe red state, rejected an anti-abortion measure by a decisive 61%-39% margin in the nation’s first test vote onthe volatile issue last August.

With the midterms at hand, voters are being asked to weigh in on reproductive rights, legalizing marijuana and even slavery.

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Voters will determine in at least five states whether to officially abolish involuntary servitude as a form of punishment, a question that could lead to a national rethinking on U.S. prison policy. Other ballot initiatives focus on the right to abortion and increasing minimum wage.

Many of those topics have stalled in Washington, where gridlock has devoured reform efforts.

But whether through direct ballot initiative grown by grassroots organizations via petition or indirect referendums first raised by a state legislature, these measures could have major ramifications going forward.

Here are the issues on the ballot to watch:

Abortion access

Kansas voters overwhelmingly chose to uphold the right to an abortion in August, which has emboldened progressives hoping the momentum can mobilize their base through similar ballot initiatives elsewhere.

Now at least four other states – California, Michigan, Kentucky and Vermont – will have similar questions for voters to consider.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion rights must appear on the November ballot. Under the measure, Michigan voters will be able to explicitly enshrine a woman's reproductive rights in the state constitution.

Montana is asking voters to decide rules around infants "born-alive." The referendum deals with whether infants born alive at any stage of development will be considered "legal persons."

If so, the proposal says, they must be provided medical care. Violators face a $50,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.

Poll: Most Americans want chance to support abortion rights on state ballot

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The proposed amendments in California and Vermont, which already have liberal state laws ensuring abortion rights, encompass reproductive freedom as a whole including other protections such as guaranteeing access to contraceptives. 

Voters in Kentucky, a more conservative-leaning state, are being asked this November to restrict abortion rights by declaring that the state Constitution doesn’t recognize such access or require taxpayer funding of abortion.

Outlawing slavery

Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will decide whether to abolish slavery as a part of a larger criminal justice reform movement aimed at prison labor.

Corrections officers during a media tour at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Feb. 26, 2015)
Corrections officers during a media tour at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Feb. 26, 2015)

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery and involuntary servitude when it was ratified in 1865. But a loophole allows it as punishment for someone convicted of a crime. Roughly 20 states have a similar exception.

Most of the referendums ask voters to declare no form of slavery or involuntary servitude be permitted as a punishment for a crime.

Others go further, such as Alabama's question which seeks to remove "all racist language" from the state constitution. In Oregon, the amendment would add provisions allowing the state courts or parole agency to order alternatives to incarceration for a convicted individual.

More: As George Floyd Act's chances dim, Biden stays mum on police reform

Criminal justice reform advocates say the referendums are more than symbolic and could spark larger changes for people who are incarcerated, such as paying them higher wages for prison work or ending forced labor altogether.

In 2018, voters in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah overwhelmingly struck down slavery and involuntary servitude through ballot initiatives.

Legislation has been introduced in California, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas to put similar ballot questions before voters in future elections.

Decriminalizing weed, psychedelics

Multiple states will give voters a direct say over drug policies with ballot questions on decriminalizing marijuana and certain psychedelics.

Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Maryland are looking to legalize marijuana for residents age 21 or older.

But the provisions in some places go further.

In Missouri, the proposed amendment would decriminalize marijuana use and allow people convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses a chance to seek an early release from prison and have their criminal records expunged. It also seeks to impose a six percent tax on the sale of marijuana.

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The Supreme Court in Oklahoma rejected a request that a measure on legalizing recreational cannabis gets voted on this November. But Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt set a statewide special election next March for voters to have a say.

Colorado has a ballot initiative asking voters whether the state should define certain psychedelic plants and fungi as natural medicine, including dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and mescaline.

Under the amendment, personal use, possession, transportation and growth would be legal for those age 21 or older. The changes would also create a regulatory agency that would oversee licensed healing centers to administer natural medicine services.

Minimum wage, right to work rules

Nevada voters will be given a chance to give workers a pay raise this fall when they're asked to increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour for all employees. The state's floor for how much a person is paid currently sits between $9.50 to $10.50 per hour, depending on whether they have health insurance.

In 2019, the Nevada legislature passed a measure raising the minimum wage by increments without addressing the health insurance discrepancy. The ballot question will establish a flat rate for all regardless of their insurance status.

More: Nevada's minimum wage increases but is less of a living wage than a year ago

Nebraska secretary of state certified a ballot measure in September that would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026 if approved.

In the District of Columbia, voters will decide whether to increase the minimum wage for tipped employees, such as restaurant servers,  to match that of non-tipped employees.

Beyond minimum wage, Illinois voters are being asked to establish a constitutional right to collective bargaining which would guarantee workers the right to organize a union.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Tennessee voters will weigh approving a right-to-work amendment to the state constitution which would prohibit workplaces from requiring labor union membership as a condition for employment.

Expanded Medicaid, health care

One of the major debates about the Affordable Care Act from a decade ago was whether states would accept or reject federal incentives to expand Medicaid eligibility.

As of this year, 38 states and the District of Columbia have done just that with many doing so through ballot initiatives. Voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah, for example, did so in 2018.

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South Dakota, one of 12 states that has not expanded Medicaid, will have an opportunity thanks to a coalition of health care groups who joined forces this year to push the idea to the ballot box.

Under the amendment, adults 18 to 65 earning incomes below 133% of the federal poverty level would receive Medicaid. That is roughly $18,000 per person or $37,000 for a family of four.

Other health care related questions are sprinkled around the country.

In Oregon, a ballot initiative would ensure every resident "has access to cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right."

California voters will consider banning the sale of flavored tobacco products as well as legalizing mobile sports betting to use a portion of revenue generated for a homelessness prevention fund.

Stay in the know: Get updates on these top ballot measures in your inbox

Climate change and emission tax

In 2020, multiple cities and states had ballot questions dealing with establishing policies around the environment.

Heading into the fall elections this year, New York and California both have proposals that voters will be asked to consider.

New Yorkers are being asked to support the issuance of $4.2 billion in bonds for multiple projects related to the environment, such as flood-risk reduction, coastal shoreline restoration and land conservation.

For California, which has been beset by drought, wildfires and other climate change woes, the question is whether to levy a new tax for zero-emission vehicles and wildfire prevention programs.

What's on your ballot? A complete guide to California propositions for the 2022 election

Under the proposed question, a 1.75% hike would be put on those making more than $2 million annually. That's projected to  rake in $3.5-$5 billion, according to state analysts.

About 45% of that money would go toward rebates for zero-emission vehicle buyers, especially for those in low-income areas. Another 35% of the new revenue is earmarked for building more charging stations.

The remaining 20% would be for the wildfire prevention and response actions.

Voter IDs, early voting and election laws

Voters will consider proposals in multiple states on voter identification, early voting and rules surrounding passing ballot initiatives.

In Connecticut, voters will decide if there is a constitutional amendment that permits in-person early voting.

Voters turn out to cast their ballots as early voting begins on October 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Voters turn out to cast their ballots as early voting begins on October 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Under a proposed question in Michigan, voters will decide on creating a nine-day window for early voting as well as making other changes to voting policies – such as requiring a photo ID or a signed affidavit to vote and requiring the state to provide secure drop boxes for all municipalities.

A ballot proposal in Nebraska will determine whether a valid photo ID is required to vote for any election.

Arizonans will determine whether voters are required to provide a date of birth and a voter identification number for early ballot affidavits rather than just a signature. Voters will also weigh in on proposals related to passing ballot initiatives including whether the legislature can amend or repeal ballot measures approved by voters if deemed unconstitutional by the state or U.S. Supreme Court.

Voting rights: New election laws could create barriers for voters with disabilities

One measure in Arizona would require a supermajority (three-fifths) vote to pass ballot initiatives that create a tax. A similar proposal in Arkansas would require a supermajority vote instead of a simple majority to adopt ballot initiatives.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ballot initiatives to watch in 2022 midterms, from abortion to slavery