The heated Bush-Kerry race might seem reason enough for voters to turn out on Nov. 2, but in many states extra incentive is provided by divisive ballot measures on topics ranging from marijuana legalization and minimum wages to malpractice and same-sex marriage.
While Republican strategists hope proposed gay-marriage bans — on the ballots in 11 states — will boost conservative turnout in favor of President Bush, some Democratic-leaning groups say proposals to increase the minimum wage could draw additional John Kerry (search) backers to the polls in deadlocked battleground states Florida and Nevada.
In all, 163 measures are on the ballots in 34 states, most initiated by legislators but 61 of them resulting from citizen petition campaigns. There also are intriguing local measures — voters in Nevada's Churchill County, for example, could ban brothels, while Berkeley, Calif., voters could effectively legalize prostitution by directing police to make it their lowest priority.
Same-sex marriage is the No. 1 topic in terms of the number of states addressing it, and perhaps in volatility as well. The proposed state constitutional amendments in Mississippi, Montana and Oregon would ban gay marriage, while proposals in eight other states — Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah — would go further by banning civil unions as well.
Gay-rights activists view Michigan and Oregon — both presidential battlegrounds — as their best chances of avoiding a possible clean sweep for the amendments, which are touted by supporters as extra protection against court rulings like the one legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
In Ohio, another swing state, the marriage ban is expected to pass despite opposition from the top Republicans — Gov. Bob Taft and U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich. All three, though not favoring gay marriage, say the amendment goes too far.
"They are failing the people of Ohio," said Phil Burress of Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values, which backs the amendment.
If the gay-marriage measure perhaps aids Bush in closely contested Ohio, Kerry might be helped by the Florida and Nevada proposals to create a state minimum wage of $6.15 an hour — a dollar higher than the federal minimum wage.
"Low-income voters are being mobilized in support of the minimum wage, many of whom will literally be voting to give themselves a raise," said Kristina Wilfore of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "These voters are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than a Republican."
Florida's wage issue could affect the state's closely watched U.S. Senate race. Democrat Betty Castor supports the increase, calling the existing wage an embarrassment, while Republican Mel Martinez said at their recent debate: "A buck an hour is not going to bring someone out of poverty."
Other issues on ballots in multiple states include:
— Marijuana. If voters approve, Montana would become the 10th state to legalize pot for medical purposes, Oregon would dramatically expand its existing medical-marijuana program, and Alaska would become the first state to decriminalize marijuana altogether.
— Medical malpractice: Doctors are squaring off with trial lawyers in Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon and Florida, with voters judging their bitter dispute over whether to impose limits on pain and suffering awards and on attorneys' fees in malpractice cases.
— Gambling: California and Washington voters will decide whether to create more competition for tribal casinos by expanding non-Indian gambling. Other measures would create a state lottery in Oklahoma, take a step toward allowing slot machines at South Florida race tracks, and legalize casinos in Nebraska.
— Taxes. Voters have a chance to lower taxes in Maine by capping property taxes and in South Dakota by eliminating the sales tax on groceries. Voters in Washington, Arkansas and Cleveland are being asked to pay more taxes to boost education funding.
— Election reform. Colorado's Amendment 36 would change the allocation of electoral votes from winner-take-all to a proportional system. California and Washington voters could replace party primaries with open primaries in which the top two finishers — regardless of affiliation — would advance to the general election.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has bucked his own state Republican party by endorsing the open-primary proposal and another high-profile ballot item — a $3 billion bond measure that would fund human embryonic stem cell research.
Another California measure would soften the nation's toughest "Three Strikes" law, limiting mandatory life prison terms only to cases involving violent and serious felonies.
In Arizona, illegal immigration is the focus of a hotly debated measure that would require people to produce proof of citizenship when registering to vote and crack down on efforts by illegal aliens to obtain government services. Alabama voters have a chance to delete from the state constitution a long-unenforced section requiring racially segregated schools.