Votes on abortion, work, and illegal drugs

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: voting down the ballot.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Races that influence national politics drew the most attention Tuesday night. Yet Democrats and Republicans also vied for control of state legislatures. Voters weighed in on several big ballot initiatives. 

WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown reports.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: State legislators don’t get much glory. But that doesn’t mean the races aren’t heated.

AUDIO: Some of the most important races in November feature candidates you’ve probably never heard of.

AUDIO: 150 seats in the Texas house up for grabs in November…Experts say it could be a tight race in many of those districts.

AUDIO: Republicans rule both chambers of the Georgia legislature. But Democrats see an opportunity in the state house of representatives to pull off a series of upsets and win control of the chamber.

There are 7,383 state lawmakers in the United States. Almost 80 percent of them were up for reelection on Tuesday. Democrats were especially optimistic about the number of seats they hoped to fill.

Ken Miller is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

MILLER: Democrats did well in 2018, and they made gains in a lot of state legislatures and so they saw a trend line and were hoping that it would continue in 2020. 

Traditionally Republican states like Georgia and Texas have had demographic shifts over the past few years. That gave Democrats hope that they might be able to pick up a few seats, and flip those statehouses from red to blue.

But that didn’t happen.

MILLER: And as it turned out, Democrats didn’t do as well as they thought in some of these red states. 

Republicans kept control of both Texas and Georgia. Democrats did make some gains in Arizona, and they maintained control in states like Minnesota and Michigan. In general, the party that was in power stayed in power.

But Miller says state races are getting more competitive.

MILLER: It’s no longer a situation where you can just say, well, Georgia is going to be Republican and Texas is or Arizona is. 

On top of the legislative races, 32 states also had ballot initiatives—120 of them. They ranged from tax reform to vaccine exemption policies to reintroducing gray wolves into Colorado. And a handful of states passed new drug laws. Arizona voters passed Proposition 207, legalizing recreational marijuana. Just four years ago, they rejected the same initiative. But this time was different.

Drew Savicki is a political analyst who focuses on state legislatures.

SAVICKI: This time voters approved by a wide margin. They came around to it and said, Yeah, we’re okay with it. And I think that’s something to watch down the line is, these marijuana initiatives start passing. 

New Jersey and Montana also approved recreational marijuana, while Mississippi and South Dakota approved medical marijuana. And in Oregon, voters said yes to hallucinogenic mushrooms. Measure 109 allows licensed providers to administer psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in the fungus. But perhaps most notably, Oregon voters decriminalized the possession of small amounts of hard drugs like heroin, LSD, and cocaine.

Many state governments have been relaxing drug laws little by little in opposition to federal law. Ken Miller thinks we’re moving toward a tipping point.

MILLER: We’re going to get to a point I think, where we’re going to have to harmonize our our federal laws and our state laws. And that was the purpose really, of this effort at the state level, was to push national policy by incrementally changing state laws. And they’ve done that for a couple of decades through the initiative process. And this this year is just more of the same.

Another notable ballot initiative came from California.

MILLER: Probably the biggest one was a ballot measure put on the ballot by Uber and Lyft, which was basically a push back against the California legislature.

The legislature recently passed a bill requiring gig companies like Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers as employees, instead of independent contractors. That put a huge burden on companies that use the gig business model.

MILLER: And so the legislature passed this law and these companies put a measure on the ballot to exempt themselves from the this law. 

Voters sided with the businesses, not the government.

MILLER: Even though California is overwhelmingly democratic, California voters on these ballot measures adopted some more conservative positions and rejected efforts by the legislature to sort of advance that progressive agenda even further in the state. So California was sending some mixed messages in a way.

In two other states, voters had a chance to protect the unborn. In Colorado, voters shot down a bid to ban abortion after 22 weeks gestation. Mallory Quigley of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List called the vote disappointing.

QUIGLEY: This was a really common sense ballot initiative.

Quigley says ballot measures are tough, because there’s no candidate hitting the campaign trail for people to rally behind. And Colorado isn’t very friendly territory for pro-lifers.

QUIGLEY: Colorado has been a tough state, it’s increasingly blue, you know, there’s a lot of pro-abortion voters moving from California, to places like Colorado and Texas and Montana.

But the second pro-life measure on the 2020 ballot sailed through without a hitch. In Louisiana, 67 percent of voters approved a change to the state constitution.

QUIGLEY: We were really encouraged to see Louisiana pass their amendment one, which basically says that there’s no such thing as a right to an abortion or right to a taxpayer funded abortion in the state constitution.

The amendment doesn’t change any specific law, but it lays the groundwork for future policies. It’s similar to measures passed in Alabama and West Virginia over the past couple years.

QUIGLEY: This is, you know, setting up states to just have a pro life disposition towards unborn children, and, and be sort of like a foundational value for any pro life laws that the state legislature passes.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) An election personnel examines a ballot as vote counting in the general election continues at State Farm Arena, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Atlanta. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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