Despite a record economy and greater satisfaction with government, citizens across the country will take a number of key legislative issues into their own hands this fall through ballot initiatives, a tool that exploded in use in the 1970s and continues to thrive.
Voters will weigh in on matters with clear national resonance, like cigarette taxes, affirmative action, campaign finance, and term limits. They'll also decide on intensely local questions such as timber practices in Oregon, the sale of horse meat in California, and possibly, cock fighting in Missouri.
At this early stage, there is no single, high-profile topic that looks likely to ignite a national movement the way California's antitax revolt did 20 years ago. But as a reflection of the emerging political debate for November 1998, the initiative lineup reveals the staying power of some perennial issues and identifies some newer ones that could wither or spread based on voters' verdicts.
Initiatives, allowed in 24 states, are used to "test market ideas and set political agendas," says David Magleby, author of a book on the initiative process and a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Even when defeated, ballot measures can inject an issue into public debate and candidate races, he says.
Ballot measures sometimes become highly divisive wedge issues that can define an election, as did California's anti-illegal immigrant proposition that helped Gov. Pete Wilson win reelection four years ago. Though no issue with that power is apparent right now, emotional topics such as abortion are being proposed for the ballots in Washington and Colorado.
Issues that could revive this November include affirmative action and so-called paycheck protection. An anti-affirmative action initiative on Washington State's ballot could breathe new life into a movement stalled since passage in 1996 of a ban on state employment and education preferences in California. And Oregonians will consider prohibiting public employee unions from using members' dues for political purposes, similar to an initiative defeated in California last month.
The most prevalent theme in this year's line up is governance, and how to change it, according to data gathered by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Measures have qualified for the ballot or are gathering signatures in Alaska, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana that ask voter approval of a voluntary pledge that would be requested of state legislators and members of Congress to limit their terms in office.
Term limits have the backing of two national organizations, US Term Limits and Americans for Limited Terms. Each is using state initiatives to augment its prime mission of influencing individual races by asking candidates to take the pledge and backing those …