By Cordelia Hebblethwaite
When Americans go to the polls on Tuesday, they will not just be choosing a president and members of Congress – there are 174 extra questions on the ballot in 38 states. And some go to the very heart of key issues in American society.
Seventeen states, plus the District of Columbia, currently allow the sale and use of marijuana, but only for medicinal use.
The plans would see marijuana regulated in a similar way to cigarettes and alcohol, and would allow it to be sold to anyone 21 or over.
Proponents say it would generate millions of dollars in revenue for the state government, and free up courts and prisons for more serious offenders.
Opponents say it is a dangerous drug and that any state that passes the law – and polls suggest Washington and Colorado might – would then be on a collision course with federal government. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and federal law trumps state law.
Lawyers say it is hard to predict if federal government would step in. “We really don’t know how it would play out,” says Jennie Drage Bowser, an expert on ballot measures with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
2. Gay marriage
3. GM foods
4. Death penalty
This is one of those “perennial” issues on the ballot, says Jennie Drage Bowser. Since the 1970s, there have been 37 ballot measures on abortion.
- The ballot initiative system was designed in the early 1900s as a kind of direct democracy, because local government was seen as corrupt, says Jennie Drage Bowser. But it didn’t take long for money to become an important part of the initiative process itself
- “Money helps, but it doesn’t dictate outcomes,” says Thad Kousser, who estimates that it takes around $2m (£1.2m) to get an initiative on the ballot. Campaigning costs are on top.
This year in Montana, voters will decide whether parents must be notified when a girl under 16 plans to have an abortion (this is the case in the majority of US states).
Proponents say an abortion is a serious operation that should not be left to someone under 16 to decide, and that parents have a right to be informed.
Opponents say if a young girl has been the victim of sexual abuse at home, parental notification could put her in danger.
In Florida, voters will decide whether to ban the use of state funds for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother).
If passed, the ban would mean state employees would not be able to use their health insurance programmes to cover abortions.
Proponents say it is a cheap and effective way of reducing tooth decay, has been used for decades in the US, and has been endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opponents see it as a kind of forced medication, and say that adding fluoride to drinking water amounts to undue government intervention, takes away choice, and benefits the fluoride industry.
Wichita rejected fluoride in a referendum in 1964, and it remains a hot issue today, says Ken Ciboksi, professor of political science at Wichita State University.
“It will be a magnet for getting people to the polls. People feel very intensely about the issue.” He predicts fluoride will be rejected again: “American individualism is playing out here pretty strong.”
Fluoride in water has proved a controversial issue in the UK too.
A minimum of 25% of Michigan’s electricity would have to come from renewable sources by 2025 if voters opt in favour of a ballot proposal there.
Supporters say it would make Michigan a hub for the green energy industry, and create thousands of new jobs.
Opponents – including large energy companies and businesses – say energy prices would rise, and that, as a constitutional amendment, it would be very hard to reverse or amend.