Notable ballot measures from the 2020 election and how they could reshape America

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November 18, 2020
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Notable ballot measures from the 2020 election and how they could reshape America

During every election cycle, pundits explain the peculiarities of the Electoral College system by reminding voters that the United States was founded as a republic, not a democracy. In America, they say, voters choose representatives who then vote on their behalf when it’s time to craft policy. That would be news to the countless voters who made their voices heard this election not by choosing representatives to send to their statehouse or to Washington D.C., but by deciding on consequential policy changes directly through ballot questions.

The epitome of democracy in action, ballot questions put the power of policy directly in the hands of the American voter. In some states, like California, deciding on a blizzard of often complex and sometimes confusing ballot questions every election is baked into the state’s democratic DNA. Ballot measures in other states are last resorts, reserved for questions that are too controversial or clumsy to shepherd through the state legislature via traditional political channels.

2020 voters passed and rejected ballot measures with enormous implications across the country. Some will check police power. Others will legalize marijuana and even decriminalize hard drugs. Others will raise taxes, improve transportation, and regulate the gig economy.

Using a combination of Ballotpedia, FiveThirtyEight, and local news websites, Stacker compiled a list of 30 notable ballot measures voted upon in the 2020 election. The measures are organized by different topics, including abortion, drug legalization and regulation, marriage equality, transportation, police reform, and labor. All election results mentioned in this story are current as of Nov. 11, 2020.

Whether or not ballot measures were up for a vote in the localities where individual readers lived, they should know that the implication of some of the outcomes are likely to have nationwide repercussions. This list explores the ballot measures that were the most controversial, most consequential, and most pressing in the entire country.

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Colorado: Proposition 115

- Topic: Abortion

A 58.9% majority of Coloradans rejected Proposition 115 on Election Day. The initiative would have banned abortions after 22 weeks except to save the life of the mother. Punishments would not have included jail time, but offenders could have been hit with a fine up to $5,000.

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Louisiana: Proposed Amendment #1

- Topic: Abortion

In Louisiana, an even greater majority than that which decided Colorado’s abortion-related ballot question sided with the majority in voting to pass Amendment #1. The measure, which passed with 62.1% of the vote, will amend the state constitution to omit any language that implies that a woman has a right to get an abortion or that any abortion should be funded. A largely symbolic victory for now, the initiative represents the foundational legal framework the state would have to erect if Roe v. Wade were overturned, which anti-abortion Louisianans hope is on the horizon now that conservatives have succeeded in stacking the Supreme Court.

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Oregon: Measure 110

- Topic: Drug legalization/regulation

In the boldest and most significant repudiation of the war on drugs in history, Oregonians passed Measure 110 by a wide margin. While many states have adopted medical marijuana, decriminalization of marijuana, and even legal recreational pot, Measure 110 almost completely severs drug possession from the criminal justice system, including the personal possession of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, and meth. The penalty for possession is now limited to a small fine that can be waived if the person receiving the ticket agrees to participate in a health assessment.

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New Jersey: Public Question 1

- Topic: Drug legalization/regulation

Legalization advocates in New Jersey and New York have been locked for years in a race to become the first state in the sub-New England Northeast to legalize recreational pot. New Jersey won that race on Election Day when its voters approved Public Question 1. The Garden State is now positioned to benefit from a huge boon in marijuana tax revenue as it’s flooded with demand not only from New Jersey residents, but from those in the enormous neighboring markets of Philadelphia and New York.

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Arizona: Proposition 207

- Topic: Drug legalization/regulation

Thanks to the passage of Proposition 207, adults 21 and aloder in Arizona can now buy, possess, consume, and even grow limited amounts of marijuana. The initiative—which also allows people to request expungement of qualifying pot convictions—puts Arizona in league with neighbors Colorado, California, and Nevada as part of a growing contingent of Western states moving toward full legalization.

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Montana: Constitutional Initiative 190

- Topic: Drug legalization/regulation

Despite the fact that three of its four neighboring states don’t even recognize medical marijuana, Montana joined Colorado in approving recreational pot for personal use, cultivation, and taxation in the Mountain West. Constitutional Initiative 190 comes with a 20% tax on non-medical marijuana and is expected to generate $48 million a year by 2025.

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South Dakota: Constitutional Amendment A

- Topic: Drug legalization/regulation

Unlike neighboring Montana, which transitioned first through medical marijuana, South Dakota jumped straight to full legalization with the passage of Constitutional Amendment A. Proponents of federal legalization have hailed the victory in deeply conservative South Dakota as a testament to a widespread change in public sentiment on the issue.

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Colorado: Proposition EE

- Topic: Drug legalization/regulation

More than two out of three Colorado voters chose to pass Proposition EE, which will increase the per-pack cigarette tax from 84 cents today to $2.64 by 2027. It also sets minimum price floors for a range of tobacco products and taxes nicotine vaping products. Aside from the hundreds of millions of dollars the measures are expected to raise, Prop EE was also driven by a worrisome increase in teen nicotine and tobacco use in Colorado.

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Mississippi: Ballot Measure 1

- Topic: Drug legalization/regulation

Ballot Measure 1 required Mississippians to navigate a complex two-step process to choose whether to legalize medical marijuana, to approve a much stricter alternative for terminally ill patients only, or not at all. The measure passed despite the-sky-is-falling warnings from Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who foreshadowed a Cheech-and-Chong-esque future for Mississippi with “pot shops everywhere,” “no local authority,” and “the most liberal weed rules in the U.S.!” Mississippi joins Florida and neighboring Arkansas and Louisiana as the only medical marijuana states in the South.

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California: Proposition 22

- Topic: Economy and labor

Proposition 22 was widely seen as the first shot in the coming nationwide war to regulate the gig economy, and it passed in California after earning the title of the most expensive ballot measure in the state’s history. The measure overturns a 2019 law that classified gig workers—like drivers for Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash—as full employees. While this reverts them back to independent contractor status, they also gained some protections. The ridesharing companies and their allies that supported the measure spent more than $200 million to get it passed, outspending their opponents, mostly in organized labor, by a margin of 10 to 1.

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Florida: Amendment 2

- Topic: Economy and labor

Although organized labor came up short on a ballot measure in California, their allies in Florida scored a huge win on a ballot question there. The passage of Amendment 2, which was staunchly opposed by big business, increases the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 an hour incrementally through 2026. The change, which barely passed the required 60% supermajority, is expected to lift millions of low-wage Floridians out of poverty.

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Illinois: Allow for Graduated Income Tax Amendment

- Topic: Economy and labor

Illinois voters opted not to overturn an amendment to the state’s constitution that requires a flat income tax across all income levels. Progressive opponents had insisted that the status quo shields the richest residents from paying their fair share and that a graduated tax was necessary not only for the sake of economic equity, but to plug already large budget gaps that were widened further by the pandemic.

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Maryland: Question 1

- Topic: Economy and labor

Voters in Maryland put an end to more than a century of sweeping gubernatorial control of state budgets and siphoned some of that power off to the state legislature by voting yes on Question 1. Nearly three out of four voters chose to give more control to the Maryland General Assembly to amend the state budget. As it stands, legislators can only cut from the budget, not add to it.

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Arizona’s Proposition 208

- Topic: Economy and labor

Arizonans voted to enact a wealth tax by fairly slim margins with the passage of Proposition 208. The measure adds 3.5% to the existing income tax for income over $250,000 for single filers and $500,000 for joint filers. The extra revenue will be directed to several education initiatives.

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Massachusetts: Question 2

- Topic: Elections

In the runup to the election, it appeared that Massachusetts was on course to join Maine as the second state in America to implement ranked-choice voting. Despite its backing by a well-funded, widely-endorsed, and seemingly-popular movement, voters ultimately said no when it came time to pull the trigger. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to choose candidates in order of preference and have their votes carried over if their primary candidate doesn’t meet a certain threshold of votes.

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Alaska: Ballot Measure 2

- Topic: Elections

Ranked-choice voting in the general election also struck out in Alaska when voters shot down Ballot Measure 2. The measure also would have changed primary voting in the state from a partisan format to a top-four selection format in certain state elections. Ballot Measure 2 also would have increased transparency in campaign contributions.

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Oklahoma: State Question 814

- Topic: Healthcare (misc)

A large percentage of Oklahomans voted against State Question 814. The initiative would have diverted funds from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust to help finance the state’s Medicaid obligations.

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Nevada: Question 2

- Topic: Marriage equality

Known as the “Marriage Regardless of Gender Amendment,” Question 2 passed overwhelmingly in Nevada. Although the Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriage is legal in every state, Nevada holds the distinction of being the only state in American that enshrined marriage equality in its constitution.

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San Francisco: Proposition D

- Topic: Police reform

More than two out of three voters united to pass Proposition D in California, which creates a civilian oversight panel to monitor the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. The initiative found its way onto the ballot after charges were dropped against sheriff’s deputies accused of staging brutal gladiator-style fights between jail inmates in their custody.

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San Diego: Measure B

Thanks to support from roughly three out of four voters, Measure B passed easily in San Diego. The initiative will create a Commission on Police Practices for community oversight, which will put more civilian eyes on police activity. Many voters wanted something similar in 2016, but were forced to settle for a declawed version called Proposition G. Two years later in 2018, lawmakers didn’t act fast enough to get a measure on the ballot.

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Columbus, Ohio: Issue 2

- Topic: Police reform

Citizens in Columbus have pushed for police reform for decades, but the spark truly needed to put a measure on the ballot came in the form of protests and, occasionally, riots in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. A heavy-handed and widely-panned police response gave reform advocates enough popular support to put Issue 2 before voters, who approved the measure.

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Pittsburgh: Home Rule Charter amendment

Pittsburgh residents voted decisively to pass a police reform bill known as the Home Rule Charter amendment. The measure compels law enforcement officers to participate in oversight investigations of police misconduct.

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Philadelphia: Ballot questions

- Topic: Police reform

Police reform was on the ballot on the other side of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, as well. Voters there chose by large numbers to pass several ballot measures that will establish a police oversight commission, eliminate stop-and-frisk police policies, and create a victim’s advocate office.

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Portland, Oregon: Measure 26-217

- Topic: Police reform

The events of 2020 put police reform on the bill out West, as well, with Oregon voters approving Measure 26-217 by margins exceeding 80%. The measure dissolves the existing police oversight board and creates a new one populated by a diverse group of citizens who have no affiliation with law enforcement.

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King County, Washington: Charter Amendments 5 and 6

- Topic: Police reform

King County voters chose to reign in the power of law enforcement by passing Amendment 5, which changes the sheriff’s office from an elected position to one that is appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the county council. Voters also passed Amendment 6, which gives the county council the authority to determine the duties of the sheriff instead of those duties being dictated by state law, as it stands now.

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Rhode Island: Question 1

- Topic: State symbols

In Rhode Island, voters spoke on a measure that works to heal historic wounds through symbolic action when they approved Question 1. The measure will change the state’s official name from “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to plain old “Rhode Island.” The name comes from 1600s Puritan minister Roger Williams, who founded a series of plantations on the Providence River that would later become Rhode Island.

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Mississippi: Ballot Measure 3

- Topic: State symbols

Just as Mississippi was a little behind the rest of the country when it waited nearly 150 years—until 2013—to ratify the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, the Magnolia State was also the last holdout in removing images of the Confederacy from its state flag. Finally, in 2020, voters approved Ballot Measure 3, which replaces the entire flag—which prominently featured the symbol of white supremacy—with a new flag dominated by a magnolia flower.

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Bay Area, California: Measure RR

- Topic: Transportation

Voters in the Bay Area extended a lifeline to the foundering Caltrain system when they approved Measure RR. The move increases the sales tax to provide reliable, long-term funding to Caltrain for the first time in 30 years.

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Austin, Texas: Proposition A

- Topic: Transportation

Voters in Austin also approved a new funding source to make it easier to get around the Texas capital. The passage of Proposition A will raise property taxes to fund a $7.1 billion CapMetro public transit plan.

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