Commentary

How Did Freedom Fare on the Ballot?

By Patrick Basham
November 25, 2002
In an inconclusive electoral bout, freedom took a few blows while landing some punches of its own on Election Day.

Over 200 ballot measures gave voters in 40 states a temporary voice in the policy decision-making process. In recent weeks, considerable newsprint was devoted to informing us how this year’s crop of initiatives leaned to the liberal, rather than the conservative, side of the spectrum. But instead of categorizing ballot questions by arguably outdated ideological labels, a more appropriate yardstick is whether or not the success or failure of a ballot measure advanced or hindered the cause of limited government, personal freedom, and individual responsibility.

For example, four states, plus Washington, D.C., were given the opportunity to relax their drug laws, thereby emphasizing rationality and compassion over coercion. But Ohio voters rejected providing treatment rather than incarceration for non-violent drug offenders. Nevada voters, living in a state that is the gambling and prostitution capital of the nation, rejected — with a straight face — a proposal to decriminalize the possession of three ounces or less of marijuana for adults. Then, South Dakota voters rejected a proposal to legalize marijuana-like industrial hemp. Most surprisingly, in Arizona voters rejected a pro-medical marijuana initiative.

Drug policy reformers may find some solace, however, in the passage of two citywide marijuana measures. In San Francisco, voters approved medical marijuana, while voters in Washington, D.C., approved a treatment-instead-of-jail measure for drug offenders.

It’s clear that Florida voters got out on the illiberal side of the bed on Election Day. Exhibit A is their overwhelming approval of a constitutional amendment banning smoking in indoor public places, including offices, restaurants, and bars. Arizona voters also chose to more than double the state’s cigarette tax and to use the additional revenue for anti-smoking programs. Somewhat more sensibly, in Missouri voters narrowly rejected a quadrupling of the cigarette tax.

Initiatives in eight states sought to expand the freedom to gamble. In Tennessee, voters repealed a 168-year old ban on a state lottery. North Dakota voters approved a proposal for their state to join a multistate lottery. One day, perhaps, voters in these (and other) states will be asked to fully privatize the lottery business.

A moral victory was achieved in Massachusetts, where a proposal to eliminate the state personal income tax was barely defeated. Impressively, and somewhat surprisingly, Northern Virginia voters soundly defeated a proposal to increase the local sales tax to pay for regional transportation improvements. Voters in California and Washington wisely rejected similar proposals.

A slim majority of Oregon voters must have decided they wanted fewer entry-level jobs in their state as they went ahead and approved an increase in the job-destroying minimum wage. However, the same electorate went some distance to redeeming itself when, by a massive four-to-one margin, voters rejected a single, government-funded, universal health care program.

Unfortunately, Florida voters weren’t content regulating the decision-making of private businesses. They also decided, albeit narrowly, to constitutionally limit class size in Florida schools. Score another one for the teachers’ unions. Florida’s voters also approved a measure offering free preschool to every four-year old in the state. Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, California voters followed the compassionately conservative instruction of actor-turned-would-be Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger and approved an increase in funding for before- and after-school programs.

On the campaign finance reform front, the most encouraging news came from, of all places, liberal Massachusetts, where voters rejected the idea of taxpayer money being used to fund political campaigns. However, in Republican-leaning Colorado, voters approved a reduction in the size of permissible individual, political action committee, and party campaign contributions to candidates. Further limits on campaign donations will only serve to further diminish electoral competition.

And, finally, for those who may have missed the result, Oklahoma voters approved a ban on cockfighting. Evidently, one bird’s freedom was found to end at the tip of another bird’s beak. But an analysis of ballot measures nationwide finds that, by contrast, the average midterm voter remains highly ambivalent when calculating where his own freedom ends and his neighbor’s begins.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.