WASHINGTON – Manuel Romero operated his family-owned restaurant in downtown Arcadia, Calif., for 10 years with no problems — until the government came knocking.
Romero, 53, found himself in an eminent domain dispute when he refused to allow the city to take over his 1950s brick grill that serves American-style breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
"If the government wants to use eminent domain on my property for public use, they have all the right to do that," Romero said. "But they want to tear my building down so they can make a parking lot."
Romero's case is unresolved, but he could get help on Tuesday from fellow voters.
• Check Your State, Check Your Race by clicking the BALANCE OF POWER dropdown menu above.
Proposition 90 made it onto the California ballot after sponsors received more than 1 million signatures. The initiative calls for a ban on state and local governments from condemning or damaging private property for other private use. It would also limit the government's authority for some land use and other regulations.
Prop 90 is just one eminent domain issue on the ballot in 13 states. The issue's prominence may be a result of the Supreme Court ruling last year that allowed governments to take private property for another private use if it improves the neighborhood. Kelo v. New London, Conn., sparked a major backlash, and several localities acted quickly to prevent private use claims from being made in their neighborhoods.
Other places have left it up to the voters. Of the eminent domain initiatives up for approval, some call for prohibiting the government from taking over private property for private use. Others cover regulatory control and whether the government should pay property owners when a land use regulation reduces the value of their property.
Eminent domain isn't the only citizen-driven ballot initiative going before voters on Election Day. Thirty-seven states will decide on controversial issues such as abortion, gay marriage, minimum wage and public smoking.
In all, 201 initiatives will appear on the ballots, the second-highest number of initiatives to reach the polling booths in 100 years. Seventy-six of them are citizen-initiated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2004, voters considered 162 measures. That was nearly double the 87 initiatives nationwide in 1996. Voters decided on 62 initiatives in 1992.
The number of citizen initiatives, which require a certain number of signatures for each state to qualify for the ballot, is a reflection of people's dissatisfaction with government, said Jennie Bowser, a policy analyst for the NCSL.
"It's the anti-government theme standing out this year," Bowser said.
South Dakota Abortion Initiative Could Set Stage for New National Debate
Initiatives are often offered in reaction to legislative and court decisions. In South Dakota, for instance, dueling groups are preparing to celebrate — or file legal challenges — over the outcome of divisive proposition that would repeal a recent ban on most abortions in the state.
The ban, signed into law on March 6, states that South Dakota women are able to get an abortion only to save their own lives. It does not allow an abortion for other health concerns, rape or incest. A doctor performing illegal abortions could face up to five years in prison.
Some groups say the law is a challenge to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
“It’s really important that the people of South Dakota just say 'no' to this ban because it is too restrictive,” said Jan Nicolay, co-chairwoman of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, a grassroots group that opposes the ban.
But Leslie Unruh, campaign manager for Vote Yes for Life, a grassroots group campaigning to uphold the ban, said passage of South Dakota's proposition would be a good standard for other states to follow.
"I believe that next Tuesday when we have a victory, we're going to see hope in all the states," Unruh said. "They are going to want to do what South Dakota did."
A majority of South Dakota voters polled last week by the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls said they oppose the ban. Fifty-two percent of 800 registered voters rejected the ban, meaning they would support the initiative to repeal the law. Forty-two percent support the ban, and oppose the initiative, and 6 percent are undecided. Mason-Dixon Polling & Research conducted the survey with a 3.5 margin of error.
Elsewhere, in California and Oregon, voters will also take up abortion at the polls. Propositions would require parental notification and a waiting period before a minor could obtain an abortion.
Gay Marriage Issue Profile Raised After New Jersey Supreme Court Decision
While the issue of gay marriage doesn't carry the same weight it did in 2004, it will appear on eight state ballots.
Six states and the District of Columbia give gay couples legal rights, such as the ability to make medical decisions for a partner or to sue for wrongful death. It is legal in Massachusetts to marry.
A recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court came as an "October surprise" to some opponents of gay marriage, who said they hoped that the court's decision to require the state Legislature to grant gay marriage rights to same-sex couples would spur the conservative base to the polls.
Among the states defining gay marriage are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Colorado has two questions on its ballot — to legalize civil unions and ban same-sex marriages. Virginia is offering voters a chance to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. State lawmakers approved the amendment earlier this year.
Stem Cell Research Turns to Debate on Cloning
The controversial issue of stem cell research has popped up in close election races nationwide, and could help drive voter turnout.
Actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, caused a stir when he appeared in commercials for Democratic candidates in Maryland and Missouri where propositions aim to legalize stem cell research.
In Missouri, voters will decide whether to change to the state constitution to allow stem cell research. The proposed amendment specifically says that the measure would not permit human cloning, something opponents have suggested it does.
"No person may clone or attempt to clone a human being. ... No human blastocyst may be produced by fertilization solely for the purpose of stem cell research. ... No stem cells may be taken from a human blastocyst more than fourteen days after cell division begins; provided, however, that time during which a blastocyst is frozen does not count against the fourteen-day limit," the lengthy amendment reads.
Democratic Missouri auditor Claire McCaskill is running for Senate against Republican incumbent Jim Talent, and the two stand on either side of the debate. McCaskill insists that the initiative would not allow for human cloning.
"As a lawyer looking and reading the measure, it is very clear that it strictly prohibits human cloning," McCaskill said. "The bottom line is you are not going to get a baby out of a petri dish. This measure, which we don't have right now, strictly prohibits any kind of implantation of any cells in order for a human being to be created. So there is this bright line contained in this measure which we need, all of us want."
But for religious conservatives who believe life begins at conception, the reproduction of the smallest human embryo even if never implanted in a woman, is cloning in their view, and it's wrong.
"We can't get away from the fact that Amendment 2 will create a new constitutional right to cloning human embryos for research in Missouri," said Cathy Ruse, spokesperson for Missourians Against Human Cloning.
Other statewide initiatives to watch:
On Withdrawing from Iraq — Three states — Illinois, Massachusetts and Wisconsin — will ask voters if they want to call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
On Hosting a New Lottery — Voters in Arizona could be rewarded next election for exercising their right to vote. Proposition 200, the Arizona Voter Reward Act, would establish a $1 million prize drawing every two years for a voter selected at random from those casting ballots in state primary or general elections.
On Raising the Minimum Wage — A boost for state minimum wage levels goes before voters in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Montana, Missouri and Ohio. All the states currently have minimum wages that match the federal level of $5.15 per hour. Arizona would raise its rate to $6.75 per hour; Colorado would go up to $6.85; Missouri would rise to $6.50; Montana and Nevada would increase theirs to $6.15 per hour; and Ohio would raise its wage to $6.85 per hour.
On Designating an Official Language — Arizona will ask voters whether they want to designate English as the official language.
On Smoking and Tobacco Taxes — Arizona and Ohio will decide if they want to ban smoking in public places but allow it in bars. California, Missouri and South Dakota will vote to increase state taxes on tobacco products.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.