WASHINGTON – Despite a list of tantalizing topics ranging from marijuana possession to genetically modified foods, most voters are holding their tongues and keeping a cap on the excitement that has accompanied initiatives in recent years.
"There really aren’t any slam dunks this election cycle. [Voters] seem to be as conflicted and uncertain about voting on ballot initiatives as they are voting Republican or Democrat," said Dane Waters, spokesman for the Virginia-based Initiative and Referendum Institute.
"They seem to be extremely cautious," he said.
Polling across the country suggests that most people are evenly divided on the majority of this year's controversial issues. According to IRI, the outcome is too close to call on most of the 202 statewide ballot measures -- 53 citizen-initiated and 149 government-sponsored -- being voted on in 40 states.
Those ballot issues range from the mundane, like clarifying constitutional amendments and bond requests, to the provocative, for instance, this year's vote on whether the San Fernando Valley should secede from Los Angeles.
In Oregon, voters will get to choose whether the states should require labels indicating whether a food product has been genetically modified -- what opponents of such edibles call Frankenfoods. Voters will also be asked whether they support a universal health plan paid for by the state government.
Both measures seem to be in peril of failing, mostly because of well-funded advertising campaigns by the food and health industries, critics say. Other observers suggest that voters are afraid to pass measures that seem particularly expensive in a time of budgetary recession.
"Voters are very skeptical about proposals that will cost them money or have a potentially negative effect on basic government programs such as education," said Pat McCormick, a consultant who has organized campaigns against both measures.
Perhaps the highest spending on ballot questions this year has occurred in Arizona, where voters will consider three competing proposals to increase the amount of casino gambling in the state. According to reports, backers of the three initiatives have poured roughly $32.2 million into their cause. Despite the blitz, recent polls suggest that all three will fail on Election Day.
In Nevada, the vote appears close, but leaning towards failure, on an initiative that would decriminalize possession of less than three ounces of marijuana – one of the most ambitious pot initiatives ever on the books. Initiatives in Arizona and Ohio to legalize marijuana for medical purposes are also up in the air. Waters said Arizona may pass the measure, but Ohio is too close to call.
"The drug policy people, they’ve been very successful at the ballot box," said Waters, referring to successful medical marijuana initiatives in several states over the last 10 years. "But this looks like it will be the toughest election cycle ever."
Waters said the federal government, which bans the use of medical marijuana, has become involved in helping to thwart the questions behind-the-scenes. "The federal government has taken a very active role in seeing these things defeated."
In Massachusetts, voters are to decide whether to scrap the state income tax -- an idea more than 30 percent of taxpayers have warmed up to, according to recent polls. But elected officials have been hard at work to deflect this question’s popularity, warning that such a cut would put a big hole in an already cash-strapped state budget.
Questions focusing on education have also maintained local headlines. Voters in Massachusetts and Nebraska are expected to pass an initiative dumping bilingual education and replacing it with English-only curricula. In Colorado, the same initiative is getting less support.
In Florida, support for an initiative on whether to reduce class sizes is tied to the high profile -- and very close -- race between Gov. Jeb Bush, who says the initiative would cost too much money, and his opponent Bill McBride, who supports it.
Twenty-four states give people the opportunity to put initiatives on the ballot through signature-gathering petitions. The number of citizen initiatives has declined 30 percent since 2000.
In some states, elected officials are trying to put an even greater dent in the power of the people to initiate new ballot questions.
In Florida, for example, voters will have a say in whether citizen-initiatives should include cost estimates, though legislative questions would be exempt from such a requirement.
In Montana and Oklahoma, lawmakers have placed questions on the ballot making signature requirements for initiatives much harder.
Waters said making it more difficult is just one way state officials have been able to diminish the process altogether. This year, voters don't seem to notice. They are too distracted by larger concerns that take a lot of wind out of the initiative strategy as a whole.
"There are lot of undecideds," he said. "I think it has a lot to do with voters’ ideas about the economy -- we’re in bad fiscal times. There is uncertainty with the stock market, whether we are going to war or not, or whether there will be another terrorist attack on domestic soil. People are saying, 'Let's get through this dark period before making any major changes.'"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.