Commentary

How Did Freedom Fare on Election Day?

By Patrick Basham
November 9, 2004

Beyond the partisan bouts, freedom took a few blows while landing an occasional punch of its own on Election Day. Over 160 ballot measures in 34 states gave voters a temporary voice in the policymaking process. Several of those ballot questions directly affected, for good or ill, the cause of limited government, personal freedom and individual responsibility.

It’s clear that many voters got out on the illiberal side of the bed on Election Day. Exhibit A is the overwhelming approval of respective state bans on same-sex marriage. Ballots in 11 states asked voters to render their verdict on this issue. The response was unanimous. All of the proposed bans, many in the South but also the Midwest and even “progressive” Oregon, passed by overwhelming margins.

The validity of other existing restrictions on individual freedom and responsibility were also subject to voter scrutiny. For example, Alaskans were given the opportunity to decriminalize marijuana, thereby emphasizing rationality over persecution. Nevertheless, Alaska’s voters rejected by a 14-point margin a measure that would have regulated the cultivation, use and sale of marijuana for persons 21 and older.

Meanwhile, Oregon voters rejected the opportunity to expand the state’s medical marijuana program. By contrast, some positive news came out of Montana where a proposal for medical marijuana for the critically ill passed by an almost two-to-one margin.

The freedom to gamble remained a hot ballot topic, as six states put a total of 13 measures before the voters. Oklahomans approved a state lottery but Nebraskans and Californians overwhelmingly rejected casinos and tribal casinos, respectively. In Michigan, popular approval will now be required before new forms of gambling facilities can be established. The introduction of slot machines into two large Florida counties rests upon the outcome of a recount following an initial tallying that was too close to call. One day, perhaps, voters in those (and other) states will be asked to fully privatize the lottery business.

California voters passed by 18 points a heavily marketed initiative authorizing a $3 billion bond issue for stem cell research. This is the largest bond issue ever authorized by a voter initiative. California voters also passed a one percent tax on personal income above $1 million, the additional revenue supposedly earmarked to fund the expansion of mental health programs. Maine voters heartily rejected a proposed cap on property taxes.

Majorities in Florida and Nevada decided they wanted fewer entry-level employment opportunities in their respective states, because they approved increases in the job-destroying minimum wage. On a more encouraging note, Californians narrowly rejected an employment- and income-reducing proposal to require businesses with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance to employees and their dependents; under the proposal, the firms were to pay for 80 percent of the insurance costs either by arrangement with an insurance provider or by paying into a state program.

The direction of education policy was on the ballot in several states. Proposals to increase public education spending through taxation were dealt something of a blow. In the state of Washington, voters handily rejected an initiative that would have increased the state sales tax by one percent (which would have raised it to 7.5 percent, the highest in the country) so as to increase public education spending by almost 10 percent. Similarly, Arkansas voters rejected a property tax measure that was supposed to boost education spending. Score both votes as defeats for the anti-reformist teachers’ unions.

An analysis of ballot measures nationwide finds that the average voter remains deeply ambivalent about the appropriate degree of government involvement in our social and economic lives. Such uncertainly about the boundaries of individual liberty and personal responsibility presents an opportunity for proponents of limited government to extend their efforts to publicize the benefits of freedom in both the economic and social spheres.

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