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Ballot initiatives take the pulse of the nation

Prop 91 - just one of three ballot initiatives on marijuana decriminalization Steve Dipaola/Reuters

Editor’s note: There were 146 state-wide ballot measures up for consideration by voters in this week’s midterm elections, covering all manner of controversial issues – from abortion and guns to minimum wage increases and workers’ sick leave. Add to these hundreds of local ballot measures on equally contentious matters like fracking. What do the results, then, say about what direction the country is moving? We asked a panel of researchers for their reactions.

Marijuana legalization

Robert Mikos, Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University

Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia just voted to legalize recreational marijuana. In a sense, they broke no new ground – Colorado and Washington already legalized recreational marijuana two years ago. But the passage of these measures is extraordinary in another sense: marijuana legalization no longer surprises anyone. Even the federal government, which continues to ban marijuana, seems unlikely to raise a fuss. Indeed, following similar votes in Colorado and Washington in 2012, the Department of Justice announced that it would refrain from prosecuting marijuana users and dealers who comply with state law, so long as they do not implicate a distinct federal interest (like stopping inter-state shipments of the drug). As control of the Congress shifts to the Republican Party, it seems unlikely that the federal government will do anything but continue to sit on the sidelines for the next two years.

The votes on Tuesday are interesting for two other reasons as well. First, these votes arguably foretell how marijuana laws will evolve in the states over time. The four states and DC that were the first to legalize recreational marijuana were also among the first to legalize medical marijuana: Alaska, Oregon, and Washington legalized medical marijuana in 1998, Colorado did so in 2000, and DC first tried in 1999. This suggests that voters might be more comfortable taking the plunge (i.e., legalizing recreational marijuana) after dipping their toes in the pool first (i.e., legalizing medical marijuana). It also suggests that the next states to legalize recreational marijuana are likely to be ones with more mature medical marijuana programs, such as California (1996) and Maine (1999).

Second, the defeat of a medical marijuana initiative in Florida is as unsurprising as the passage of legalization elsewhere. The south has been resistant to marijuana reforms; it remains the only region of the country without a legalization state. To some extent, southern resistance might be due to public attitudes toward marijuana; but it also might stem from lawmaking procedures used in many southern (and some other states) that impede the adoption even of popular reforms. After all, over half (58%) of Florida voters actually supported legalization of medical marijuana; but that figure just was not enough to change state law – the constitutional initiative process requires 60% support, higher than the simple majority needed in many other states, like California. A vote to legalize marijuana elsewhere in the country might not be surprising anymore, but when it happens in the south it will be noteworthy.

Minimum wage increase

Kevin Lang, Professor of Economics, Boston University:

What is very interesting is that even from some very red states, there has been support for increasing the minimum wage, while there has been opposition to that from the Republican party.

President Obama has proposed raising the minimum wage, so it is very interesting to see the large amount of public support for an increase in the minimum wage. It suggests that concerns about inequality that have been raised by some of the Democrats, and Hillary Clinton in particular, do resonate with the voters regardless of the other motivations for what was obviously a large Republican victory.

Economists tend to focus on the distributional and efficiency aspects of the minimum wage - that is to say, how much do they reduce inequality (if at all), how much do they reduce employment (if at all). When people think about the minimum wage, they tend to think about it in a very different way - which is a view that if you work full time, you should be able to support your family.

So the focus of the minimum wage debate tends to be on how much do you have to earn in order for you to have a living wage. In San Francisco, people talk about whether the $15 minimum wage, which won’t be in effect until July 2018, will be enough to be liveable. That has been the nature of the discussion there.

The employment effects of the minimum wage, certainly in the short run, are very small. They are not zero; there is some job loss, and it’s probably the case that in the longer-run, there are somewhat larger effects. It takes time to change your technology and the like. The best evidence that we have - and I have to admit the evidence isn’t all that good - is that the employment effects are small.

At the same time, when we talk about inequality, the minimum wage is actually very poorly targeted to address family income inequality.

A significant minority of minimum wage earners are teenagers - some of them from disadvantaged families who are helping their families - but there are also minimum wage earners who are in relatively well-off families. Again our best evidence is that it does a little bit to reduce family income inequality, but its effects are not dramatic.


Ian Partridge, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Energy Studies at the University of Texas

Eight counties and municipalities around the US had fracking bans on the ballot: three in California, four in Ohio and one in Texas. Half of the bans passed: San Benito and Mendocino Counties in California, Gates Mills in Ohio and Denton, Texas. It is hard to find a clear message in a 50/50 split: most voters in California vote for the environment and those in Ohio vote for jobs, but we knew that already.

The standout is Denton – a town that sits right on top of the Barnett Shale. It is not exactly a hotbed of liberalism – Republicans won every one of the six contested races in Denton County. So what happened?

My suspicion is that Denton voters were not voting to limit output of fossil fuels – highly unlikely in Texas, of all places. They probably weren’t voting to protect the state’s air or water or to limit methane emissions either. Without taking sides, many claims of environmental damage linked to fracking are disputable, and the oil and gas industry spent heavily to make that point. However, what cannot be disputed is that fracking is an industrial process. It is noisy and roads in fracking areas are frequently clogged with heavy trucks. That is the sort of issue that gets voters anywhere riled up, and I suspect that that is what Denton voted against.

So, what is next for the towns and counties that voted to ban fracking? A lot of expensive litigation – that is what. They face legal problems on two fronts: do they have the power to ban fracking? And will they have to compensate owners of mineral rights that have lost value because the minerals cannot be exploited? The question of the rights of counties to pre-empt state regulation will require minute analysis of state constitutions and legislation, and the answer may vary in different states. However, the right to just compensation when a government – including a local government – takes private property is enshrined in the Constitution, so these local electorates are taking on the big battalions. Very likely, rather than incur huge legal costs, they will eventually settle for stricter limits on the nuisance created by noise and dust from fracking.

Personhood and the right to abortion

Jonathan Will, Associate Professor of Law and Founding Director, Bioethics & Health Law Center at Mississippi College

Citizens of three states had the opportunity to vote on measures considered by many to be adverse to abortion rights during the November 2014 election cycle.

While the personhood efforts in Colorado and North Dakota failed, the Tennessee electorate approved an amendment making clear that their state constitution does not protect a right to abortion, and expressly authorizing the state legislature to regulate abortion services.

Unlike the amendment that passed in Tennessee, the state constitutional amendments proposed in Colorado and North Dakota said nothing explicitly about abortion. Instead, the measures sought to extend the protections associated with a “right to life” to human beings at all stages of development. Of course, by extending this aspect of legal personhood to the preborn, abortion necessarily becomes problematic. But these types of personhood measures have failed in every state to attempt them, including Mississippi, which is considered by many to be the most conservative (and anti-abortion rights) state in the country.

So why are personhood measures failing even while the Tennessee amendment passed?

The simple answer is that personhood measures implicate far more than abortion. By common medical understanding, abortion involves the termination of a pregnancy, which exists when the embryo implants in the uterine wall some two weeks after the sperm meets the egg in the fallopian tube.

But personhood measures seek to attach legal personhood before a pregnancy exists; perhaps as soon as the sperm penetrates the egg. Therefore, the loss of even single-celled zygotes potentially becomes problematic, impacting certain forms of contraception, infertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), and so forth.

The voting populace often has strong views about abortion, and the result in Tennessee suggests that at least in some states the majority of voters are in favor of greater restrictions on abortion. But there seems to be far less support for potential restrictions on contraception and/or IVF.

The more interesting question, and one that does not receive much public discussion, is why a voter would be against abortion rights (presumably because of the loss of human life), but in favor of IVF? Is there something meaningfully different about the developing embryo immediately before implantation versus immediately after? Many personhood supporters would say no. They believe that legal personhood should begin at fertilization. But during debates about personhood measures, certain supporters suggest that the proposed constitutional amendments would not implicate IVF. This is curious given that thousands of these pre-embryonic persons are lost each year through failed implantation or otherwise.

My current work seeks to bridge this gap, or at the very least, to create a space in which meaningful discussion can be held.

Gambling and casinos

*Rachel Volberg, Associate Research Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Now that the referendum to repeal casino gambling in Massachusetts has been decided (the repeal did not pass), I will confess that my vote weighed heavily on me. As a longtime gambling researcher, I was concerned about the negative social and health impacts associated with casinos and uncertain of whether the economic benefits promised would offset them.

However, as the Principal Investigator of a statutorily mandated study of the social and economic impacts of expanded gambling, I was excited about the possibility that for the first time in the US, we might be able to identify the extent and magnitude of the impacts of casino gambling and assist in effectively minimizing and mitigating the negative impacts that emerge.

At the end of the day I decided that if casino gambling was going to happen in my home state, I wanted it to be the way Massachusetts is doing it. I doubt if many have carefully read the Expanded Gaming Act or understand how thoroughly empirical research is woven into the work of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Unlike many other jurisdictions, the Expanded Gaming Act gives equal weight to creating a vibrant casino industry and to minimizing and mitigating harms arising from that industry. The Gaming Commission has made this commitment explicit in its decision to dedicate funds, well ahead of the availability of any tax revenues, to carry out a clean baseline study before casinos open in the state. In my view, Massachusetts is creating a casino industry in the most responsible manner possible, and I am thrilled to be leading the charge to obtain the empirical evidence needed to create a sustainable casino industry in Massachusetts.

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