Where is the country headed? Ballot initiatives take the pulse of the nation
Woman smoking marijuana (Shutterstock)

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 Hilary 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


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.

The Conversation

By Jonathan F Will, Mississippi College; Kevin Lang, Boston University, and Robert A. Mikos, Vanderbilt University

Kevin Lang was an elected member of the Brookline School Committee. In that capacity, he supported a living wage law for the Town of Brookline, which set a minimum wage for anyone employed by the Town or by the School Department.

Jonathan F Will and Robert A. Mikos do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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