Cannabis, gambling, taxes, abortion, and forced labor are among the issues facing voters in this year’s state ballot initiatives. The 2022 slate features 132 propositions across 37 states to be decided at the polls on Nov. 8. 

The referendums give voters a direct say on some laws and amendments to state constitutions. Supporters say ballot initiatives are a triumph of participatory democracy, while critics call them a legal means for special interests to buy favorable legislation with an advertising blitz. At times, they can be both. Here’s a preview of this year’s most important ballot initiatives.

The United States of Cannabis

Cannabis seldom loses at the ballot box these days. Sixty-eight percent of Americans support legalization according to a 2021 Gallup poll. Medical cannabis is legal in 37 states, and 19 (along with the District of Columbia) permit recreational use, including 12 that have done so through the ballot box.

As a result, cannabis is running out of jurisdictional terrain to conquer. Among blue states, only Maryland, Delaware, and Hawaii haven’t legalized recreational use. Maryland is one of five states set to vote on a ballot proposition to do so this fall, and a recent poll suggests voters there will overwhelmingly endorse legalization by the state legislature.

The outcome of cannabis ballot propositions in the four red states voting on the issue this year—Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota—is less certain. Recent polls show tighter races in these states.

  • Arkansas: 51% in favor and 43% opposed to a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational cannabis.
  • Missouri: Two of three polls released this fall showed legalization leading; in the third, opposed led in favor by four percentage points with 10% of respondents unsure.
  • South Dakota: 51% oppose legalization of recreational cannabis and 40% in favor.
  • North Dakota: No publicly available polling; voters rejected a similar proposal 59% to 41% in 2018.

Cannabis activists have criticized the Arkansas and Missouri measures for favoring incumbent medical cannabis operators and failing to adequately address past cannabis convictions. Both initiatives have received millions of dollars of funding from players in the medical cannabis industry hoping to bolster their position in a nascent U.S. cannabis market that’s expected to be worth $40 billion by 2030.

Colorado to Vote on Magic Mushrooms, DMT

In Colorado, where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2012, a ballot measure this fall seeks to decriminalize psychedelics including:

  • psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms
  • psilocyn, a related fungi-derived psychedelic
  • dimethyltryptamine (DMT)
  • ibogaine
  • mescaline (other than from peyote)

Proposition 122 would also allow licensed facilities to administer these substances as therapeutics, a step Oregon voters took in 2020. A September poll found 36% in favor vs. 41% opposed.

Sports Bets in California

Legal sports betting—a reality in 36 states and the District of Columbia—has spread across the U.S. at a pace rivaling that of legal cannabis.

Californians will vote on two sports betting initiatives this year. Proposition 26 seeks to legalize sports betting at Native American casinos and licensed racetracks. Proposition 27, or the Legalize Sports Betting and Revenue for Homelessness Prevention Fund Initiative, would authorize online and mobile betting provided the operator obtained a market access agreement from an authorized Native American tribe.

Between them, Prop 26 and Prop 27 have attracted $568 million in political contributions, accounting for two-thirds of all contributions to ballot initiative campaigns this cycle. DraftKings Inc. (DKNG), Penn Entertainment Inc. (PENN), BetMGM—a partnership between MGM Resorts International (MGM) and London-listed Entain Plc—and privately owned gaming operators FanDuel and Fanatics have each contributed millions of dollars to support Prop 27. The national gaming companies’ advertising blitz has been countered by a torrent of attack ads financed by tribal casinos. Meanwhile, the measure legalizing betting at tribal casinos has been opposed by card club operators. The end result is that neither measure is expected to pass, based on recent polling.

Roe v. Wade Aftershocks

Abortion is on the ballot in five states this fall, months after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned 49 years of legal precedent under Roe v. Wade and opened the door to state abortion bans.

California and Vermont will vote on constitutional amendments protecting abortion rights. The amendments are expected to pass comfortably in both states. Michigan’s amendment protecting abortion rights faces a more uncertain future. Spending for and against the Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative has topped $50 million, with supporters outspending opponents 2 to 1. Recent polls show support for the initiative (54%) leading opposition (45%).

Kentucky Could Add Ban to Constitution

Abortion rights activists have outspent their rivals even more dramatically—by a ratio of 8 to 1—in Kentucky, where voters will decide whether to adopt a constitutional amendment banning abortions. In Kentucky, abortion is illegal except when needed to protect the woman’s life or health under a law triggered by the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Approval of the amendment would preempt a pending challenge to the abortion ban in state courts.

Montana‘s ballot initiative, while not an outright abortion ban, would mandate care for infants born alive as a result of an attempted abortion. In a recent poll, 53% of Montana residents opposed the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, while 28% supported it.

Taxes, Wages, and Economic Equity

Americans increasingly say the U.S. government should heavily tax the rich to redistribute wealth, and overwhelming majorities in polls say the rich and corporations should pay more.

This year, voters in California and Massachusetts will be asked to approve state income tax surcharges for those with the highest incomes. In California, Proposition 30 would impose a 1.75% marginal rate surcharge on annual income above $2 million. Proceeds would be spent on electric vehicle subsidies, infrastructure, and wildfire prevention. Several polls have shown the initiative ahead by comfortable margins, while the latest survey had the surcharge trailing, with 41% in favor vs. 52% opposed. California’s current top marginal rate of 13.3% on annual income above $1 million is the highest of any state.

Massachusetts voters are likely to approve a 4% marginal state income surcharge on annual income above $1 million. The Massachusetts state income tax rate is 5%.

In contrast, Colorado voters will be able to give everyone a tax break by approving a proposal lowering the state income tax rate from 4.55% to 4.4%. In 2020, Colorado voters cut the state’s income tax from 4.63% to 4.55% with a 58% majority.

Right-to-Work Laws at Issue in Illinois, Tennessee

Labor unions are enjoying a revival, and polling better than at any time since 1965. Two states will put their friendliness toward unions to vote this fall.

In Illinois, Amendment 1 would add the right to collective bargaining to the state constitution, precluding any future right-to-work laws. Such laws weaken unions by giving workers the right not to join while continuing to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining. A recent poll found the proposal ahead 54% to 30%.

Tennessee’s Constitutional Amendment 1 seeks to enshrine right-to-work in the state’s constitution. A recent poll found 44% of respondents favored the amendment, with 19% opposed.

Health Care Debt, Medicaid Expansion

In Arizona, Proposition 209 would reduce the maximum allowable interest rate on medical debt from 10% to the lower of 3% or the one-year constant maturity Treasury yield. It would also increase homestead and property exemptions from medical debt collection, and reduce the share of disposable earnings subject to garnishment. Adoption on Nov. 8 would likely encourage similar proposals in other states.

Oregon’s Measure 111 is more ambitious, declaring “access to cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care” a fundamental right under the state constitution. If approved, the measure would make Oregon the first state with a constitutional guarantee to affordable healthcare. The initiative is scant on details about how to define “affordable” or achieve its goal.

South Dakota’s Constitutional Amendment proposes expanding Medicaid access in the state to adults with incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level, as permitted by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). South Dakota is one of 12 states that have not provided the expanded Medicaid access authorized under ACA. An October poll showed Medicaid expansion in South Dakota with 51% support, while 22% opposed it.

Minimum Wage Hikes’ Winning Streak on the Line

Nevada, Nebraska, and Washington, D.C., are due to vote on minimum wage increases. Nevada’s hourly minimum would rise from the current $10.50 (or $9.50 if the employer offers qualifying health insurance benefits) to $12 an hour by 2024. Proponents say employers are currently able to pay less by offering employees costly healthcare plans few select.

Nebraska’s current $9 an hour was approved by 59% of voters in 2014. This year’s initiative would increase the hourly minimum to $15.

The D.C. measure would incrementally raise the minimum wage for tipped employees until it matches that of workers who don’t get tips in 2027. The current minimum hourly wage for tipped workers in D.C. is $5.35, vs. $16.10 for others.

Involuntary Servitude

More than 800,000 state and federal prisoners work, many to avoid further punishment, at wages measured in cents per hour and dollars per day, and sometimes for no compensation.

They do so in part because the 13th amendment banning slavery and involuntary servitude makes an exception for criminal punishment.

Five states⁠—Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—will vote this fall on ballot initiatives abolishing that exception, following in the steps of Colorado in 2018 and Nebraska and Utah in 2020.

While these changes aren’t expected to have an immediate effect on the treatment of prisoners or their working conditions, they lay the groundwork for legislative change and legal challenges.

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