Across the South, some of the biggest political battles are being fought through questions on the ballot.
In Florida, one ballot measure could add the largest number of voters to the rolls since women’s suffrage.
In North Carolina and Arkansas, voting requirements could tighten. And GOP lawmakers are trying to enshrine Republican policies in state constitutions — just in case they lose control of the legislature. Meanwhile, Louisiana voters could finally dispense with a Jim Crow-era law allowing non-unanimous jury verdicts.
A billionaire’s campaign for victims’ rights in memory of his sister sounds innocent enough until you look more closely. And two ballot measures propose to roll back abortion rights.
The strategy underlying some of these measures is — ta da! — sneaky language.
A wake-up call in Florida for voter rights
Florida’s Amendment 4 could bring a sea change to this purple state. It would allow people with prior felony convictions to vote after they complete their sentences unless they were convicted of murder or felony sexual assault. While many social justice groups are supporting the measure, some are also calling for the state to extend rights to everyone, with no exclusions.
Florida is one of only four states that doesn’t automatically restore voting rights after a felony, and it has the highest proportion of people barred from voting for that reason. Black communities are the hardest hit. More than one in five Black people in the state can’t vote.
Not so woke in Arkansas, North Carolina
On the other hand, Arkansas’s Issue 2 would infringe on voting rights by requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot.
When Republicans gained control of the North Carolina Legislature in 2013, they passed a photo ID law. It was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which said it had a racially discriminatory intent. Now the Voter ID Amendment brings it back in new form.
Shaking off Jim Crow in Louisiana
In 1898, Louisiana lawmakers rolled back the rights afforded to Black citizens by the 14th Amendment with a series of laws enshrined at a state constitutional convention where the stated goal was to “establish the supremacy of the white race.” One of those laws diminished the power of Black jurors by allowing convictions if at least 10 out of 12 jurors agreed. Today, Louisiana is one of only two states (the other is Oregon) that allow split verdicts, and there are 2,000 people in the state serving life sentences as a result. Amendment 2 would require a jury to be unanimous to convict a person of a felony.
Bare knuckles in the Tar Heel State
North Carolina state Rep. Marcia Morey put it succinctly: Just say no in North Carolina.
She called the state’s six ballot questions either unnecessary or a blatant power grab.
The Income Tax Cap Amendment, a pet project of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity organization, is worded as if it would reduce taxes. In fact, it would cap the current 5.499 percent state income tax rate at 7 percent in the state constitution. Future lawmakers would face a higher bar — amending the constitution, which requires a 60 percent majority — if they needed to fund state efforts such as education. (A similar Florida effort would require a supermajority to raise taxes.)
Two other North Carolina ballot measures would shift power from the governor (Democrat) to the legislature (Republican). They would change who appoints the election board and let the legislature instead of governor fill vacant judge seats.
The unintelligibility factor
A big problem with ballot questions is that many are incomprehensible. Amendment 8, for example, was removed from the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court, which called it misleading. It would have allowed the state, rather than local school boards, to control charter schools, but nowhere in its language was the term “charter schools.” It was also bundled with two unrelated issues. Three other Florida ballot questions are also bundled. In Louisiana, jargon on the ballot prompted one voter to pen a simplified alternative: constitutional amendments explained in Haiku form.
And then there’s Marsy’s Law
The provisions to protect crime victims known as Marsy’s Law are on the ballot in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. They also appear on the ballot in Kentucky, but a Circuit Court judge ruled on Oct. 15 that the wording doesn’t sufficiently inform people about what they’re voting on. He ordered election officials not to certify the results in Kentucky.
Marsy Nicholas was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Her brother, Henry Nicholas, founder of Broadcom Corp., became an activist for crime victims, gaining amendments in five states. In general, Marsy’s Law says victims have the right to be notified about and be heard at court proceedings and the right to be protected from the accused. Some versions also provide the right to refuse an interview or deposition at the request of the accused.
Although it’s meant to protect privacy, defense attorneys fear Marsy's Law could let victims withhold important information and could take away a defendant’s right to due process.
“Victims’ protections already exist on the books,” said E.R. Anderson, executive director of Charis Circle, an Atlanta nonprofit that fosters feminist communities and encourages marginalized voices. What’s needed is to inform people about their rights.
Furthermore, responding to gendered violence with tough-on-crime policies has, in the past, worsened conditions for women of color, whose communities are negatively impacted by mass incarceration.
“If your community is already under surveillance, adding more mechanisms for criminal justice surveillance” does not help, Anderson said.
A state-by-state rundown
Displaying Ten Commandments
Amendment 1 would allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public property.
Amendment 2 would make it state policy to “support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.”
University of Alabama Board of Trustees membership
Amendment 3 keeps the current districts for appointing board members if Alabama loses lose a Congressional district after the 2020 Census.
No need to appoint state lawmakers to fill vacant seats right before election
Issue 1 will appear on the ballot but won’t be counted because the state Supreme Court found that it unconstitutionally combined separate proposals. It would have limited civil lawsuit damages, among other changes.
Voter ID law
Term limits for legislators
Issue 3 would limit Arkansas state representatives to six years in office and state senators to eight years.
Issue 4 authorizes four casino licenses in specific counties. Proponents say that neighboring states are making money on casinos so why shouldn’t Arkansas?
Expand homestead exemption
Amendment 1 would lessen taxes slightly for some homeowners.
Cap tax increases on non-homestead properties
Amendment 2 would make permanent a temporary rule that caps tax increases on commercial and rental properties at 10 percent annually.
Amendment 3 would remove the establishment of casinos from the state Legislature and require voters statewide to decide. Its underwritten by Disney and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Restoring right to vote after felony
Amendment 4 would allow people with prior felony convictions to vote after they complete their sentences
Supermajority required to raise taxes
Amendment 5 would make it a lot harder to raise taxes in Florida by requiring a two-thirds majority — instead of a simple majority — in the state Legislature.
Death benefits for first responders and more
Amendment 7 “is another amendment that jumbles together three issues,” wrote the Tampa Bay Times in an editorial. Newspaper editorials have lambasted the mixing of different constitutional changes in one ballot measure.
State control of charter schools
Amendment 8 was removed from the ballot because the language was misleading.
Oil and gas drilling ban, vaping ban
Amendment 9 takes on two different issues: It prohibits oil and gas drilling (but not pipelines) in Florida waters and it extends the smoking ban in workplaces to vaping (e-cigarettes). The combo has drawn ridicule. The News-Press called it absurd. Environmental groups support the measure, taking what they can get.
Setting structure for state and local government
Amendment 10 is an effort to restrict the power of local government, according to the League of Women Voters. It would force counties to elect, rather than appoint, certain officials like the sherriff and tax collector. Currently counties can choose how to fill those positions.
Remove obsolete provisions
Amendment 11 would clean up the state constitution by removing outdated language pertaining to old laws that have been overturned.
Lobbying by public officials
Amendment 12 would ban public officials from lobbying for six years after leaving office.
Ban dog racing
Saving the least confusing for last, Amendment 13 would outlaw dog racing by 2021. The measure has stirred major controversy because the state has more dog tracks than the rest of the country combined, and shutting them down will result in a $1 million loss in state revenue. But proponents say it’s worth it to save greyhounds that are confined in cages for 20-23 hours a day.
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Amendment 1 would direct revenue from outdoor recreation sales to a state conservation fund. Georgia Conservancy president Robert Ramsay called it a “historic victory for land conservation in our state.”
Establish state business court
Amendment 2 would set up a business court modeled on an experiment in two counties. Opponents are concerned that the system wouldn’t have enough oversight because judges would be appointed by the Governor.
Taxable value of timber land
Amendment 3 would reduce taxes on large tracts of timberland when owners agree to keep them undeveloped. The idea is to incentivize conservation by giving subsidies to the timber industry.
School districts could call for a school tax referendum
Amendment 5 would let the biggest school districts in a county call for a sales tax referendum without having to gain approval of the other districts.
State control of property taxes in Atlanta
A dense block of legalese, Referendum A doesn’t explicitly name Atlanta, thought that’s the only city it would affect (shady!). It would allow for a homestead exemption in Atlanta but the state would have the power to control some of the details.
Tax break for homes for mentally disabled
Limit people with felony conviction from running for office
Amendment 1 would keep people with a felony conviction from running for office for five years. In 1996, Louisiana voters approved an amendment to prevent them from holding public office for 15 years after completing their sentence. In 2016 a court struck the amendment down because of an error in the text of the ballot question.
Unanimous jury convictions required
Local governments exchanging equipment, personnel
Amendment 3 allows this exchange.
State gas tax couldn’t fund state police
Amendment 4 keeps tax revenue from gas and motor fuel aimed at transportation maintenance and construction.
Tax exemption for property held in trusts
Amendment 5 allows homes held in trust to still get property tax exemptions if they are held for disabled veterans and some other groups.
Large tax increases on home
No statewide ballot measures.
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While there aren’t any state ballot measures, an important measure will appear on Nashville’s local ballot. Amendment 1 would create a community oversight board, enabling residents to hold police accountable.
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No state ballot measures.
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Tax exemption for lessening the risk of flooding
Question 1 would allow local governments to give property owners a tax exemption if they make their property less subject to flooding.
Tax exemption for spouses of disabled veterans
No right to abortion
Amendment 1 says that nothing in the state constitution protects a woman’s right to abortion or to funding for abortion. Pro-lifers are getting West Virginia ready to ban abortion if the Supreme Court, with the tilt of its newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, reverses Roe vs. Wade. The state has passed two laws that are unconstitutional: one criminalizes abortion and the other limits the use of Medicaid funds for abortion. West Virginians for Life leads the effort to ban abortion in West Virginia.
Legislature can change budget for the judiciary
Amendment 2 would let the legislature cut the budget of the state courts by up to 15 percent. A TV report last year spotlighted renovations in Supreme Court justice chambers that were supposed to cost $900,000 but ended up costing $3.7 million. West Virginia is the only state that forbids the legislature to cut the judiciary’s budget.
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