Gay rights, teen abortion, Arnold Schwarzenegger's (search) prestige. These and other volatile topics are adding spice to off-year elections in seven states where voters will be considering statewide ballot measures on Nov. 8.
As is often the case, California has the most intriguing mix of propositions — including four backed by Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor, to curb the power of the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the state's public employee unions. Another measure, notable in a state with liberal leanings, would require parents to be notified when a minor seeks an abortion.
Texas voters are expected to approve a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriages (search) — a step already taken in 18 other states. In Maine, a conservative alliance is urging voters to quash a new law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In Republican-controlled Ohio, site of bitter wrangling in the 2004 presidential election, four election overhaul measures backed by Democratic-leaning groups are on the ballot. Voters will be asked if bipartisan boards, instead of elected officials, should draw lawmakers' districts and oversee elections; whether campaign contribution limits should be lowered; and whether all voters should be allowed to vote early by mail.
Doctors and lawyers in Washington state are spending heavily to support rival measures dealing with medical malpractice. The one backed by doctors would place a cap on certain types of jury awards and limit lawyers' fees. The lawyers' proposal would create a state-run supplemental malpractice insurance program, and allow doctors' licenses to be revoked after three malpractice verdicts against them within 10 years.
Other measures in Washington would ban smoking in public areas and indoor workplaces, and overturn the Legislature's gas-tax hike of 9.5 cents a gallon.
New Jersey voters will decide whether the state should have an elected lieutenant governor to take over if a sitting governor leaves office early. The measure is a response to the sex scandal that drove former Gov. James McGreevey (search) from office and installed Senate President Richard Codey as acting governor even as he retained his Senate duties. New Jersey is one of eight states with no lieutenant governor.
Voters in New York are being asked to approve a $2.9 billion transportation bond and a measure that would give the Legislature, not the governor, the upper hand in writing a budget.
In Texas, the proposed gay-marriage ban is the only high-profile statewide item on the ballot, and both sides are concerned about possible low voter turnout.
"We think the vast majority of people in Texas are with us but that doesn't help if they don't show up," said Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute, which supports the ban.
Gay-rights activists opposing the ban have produced television ads featuring direct appeals by same-sex couples for marriage rights.
"We are not second-class citizens, and we need the same resources and rights available to heterosexual couples to protect our families," said the Rev. Carolyn Mobley, an associate pastor at the Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, appearing with her partner in one of the ads.
Massachusetts is the only state allowing such marriages; Vermont and Connecticut have approved same-sex civil unions. Texas law already prohibits same-sex marriages, but supporters of the amendment say a constitutional ban would guard that law from judicial challenges.
While the Texas amendment was placed on the ballot by the Legislature, the measure dealing with gay rights in Maine resulted from a petition campaign by conservatives upset that lawmakers expanded the state's human rights act to address anti-gay bias.
The act already prohibited discrimination based on race, gender and other factors; it was broadened this year to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations and education.
California voters face a special election called by Schwarzenegger in hopes of strengthening his hand in confrontations with legislators and civil service unions that have flared since he took office in 2003.
Schwarzenegger is backing proposals — all trailing in the polls — that would cap state spending and give the governor greater authority to make budget cuts; make teachers work five years instead of two to pass probation; strip lawmakers of their power to carry out redistricting, and require public employee unions to get members' permission before dues could be used for political purposes.
Schwarzenegger also supports the abortion measure, which would require doctors to give parents or guardians written notice 48 hours before performing an abortion on a minor. Adults would not have to consent, but sponsors hope the requirement would reduce California's teen abortion rate — the nation's fourth-highest — by involving parents in the decision.
More than 30 states have parental notification or consent laws.