Although most media coverage last November was on national elections — and especially the presidential election — most elections are actually for state and local offices. On the national level, voters choose two senators every six years, a president every four years, and a member of the House of Representative every two years. That is it. No one gets to vote for federal judges, cabinet secretaries, or agency heads. But on the state and local level, in addition to governors, lieutenant governors, state senators, and state representatives, there are (depending on the state) judges, supreme court justices, secretaries, attorneys general, comptrollers, school-board members, state commissioners, county commissioners, city council members, and others to be voted on.
One thing that is unique about state elections is the inclusion of ballot questions — initiatives, referendums, legislative issues, and constitutional amendments — that voters have the opportunity to decide. In 2016, there were 165 statewide ballot measures that were certified for the ballot in 35 states. The Arkansas Supreme Court removed three certified measures from the ballot in October, reducing the number of measures voters considered down to 162. Of this number, a majority (71) were put on the ballot by citizens through signature petitions, not by state legislatures (69). Others were bond issues (11), veto referendums (5), advisory questions (3), or legislatively referred state statutes (2). Eight of those measures were decided in elections held during the year, thus leaving 154 measures on statewide ballots in the November election. More than 205 million Americans were affected by the results of ballot measures in the election.
The subjects of the ballot questions were wide-ranging. Voters in four states approved increases in their state’s minimum wage by 2020: Arizona ($12), Colorado ($12), Maine ($12), and Washington ($13.50). Gun-control expansion was approved in three states (California, Nevada, and Washington), but defeated in Maine. Voters expressed support for retaining the death penalty in the states of California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Voters in California and Maine passed measures to increase their state’s income tax on wealthy persons. Voters in three states (Colorado, Mississippi, and North Dakota) defeated measures to increase taxes on tobacco, while voters in California approved a tobacco-tax increase.
The most-watched ballot measures were those pertaining to marijuana. The states of Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota each voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana. The states of California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Voters in Montana approved an initiative to loosen restrictions on medical marijuana. The initiative in Arizona (where medical marijuana has been legal since 2010) to legalize recreational marijuana failed to pass. What is so remarkable about the marijuana ballot measures is that the use of marijuana for any reason is still illegal on the federal level.