Complicated Election

America's Citizen Legislators

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    U.S. voters have to decide on a plethora of measures on Nov. 8. Some critics say the number of choices may overwhelm voters and question whether the ballot decisions are truly representative.

  • Facts


    • U.S. voters will also be legislators on November 8.
    • Most states will include initiatives such as the legalisation of cannabis.
    • Voters will also decide 34 Senate races today, potentially returning control of the Senate to the Democrats.
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Nine states decide on Tuesday whether they want to legalize cannabis for citizens 21 and over or for medical use. Source: dpa

It’s 224 pages long, costs around $15 million and is printed on recycled paper. The “official voter information guide” found its way into the mailbox of every registered voter in California in October. It contained information about the presidential election, but also on all pending nationwide legislative projects. It was joined by a grey “voter pamphlet” on local legislation and candidates, which ran a further 300 pages.

Many of these tomes will be thrown into the trash unread just like and old phone book. TV stations, newspapers, and the internet are already filled with coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. What more is there to know? But that’s a fatal delusion because on Nov.8, almost all U.S. citizens will be legislators, whether they want to or not.

They will vote on proposals which can literally mean the difference between life and death, and quite dramatically change their lives. That’s because each state has its own legislative initiatives that apply only to the respective region. Their numbers vary considerably, from 17 in California to only four in Florida. Sometimes several states vote on identical projects, for example nine states decide on Tuesday whether they want to legalize cannabis for citizens 21 and over or for medical use. This applies to production as well as distribution and consumption — and could fire up a completely new business model.

In California, legislative projects range from the abolition of capital punishment (Prop. 62) to the acceleration of executions (Prop. 66), mandatory condom use during the filming of porn (Prop. 60) to the dedication of revenue from plastic bag sales in supermarkets (Prop. 65).

But voters have to look carefully: Sometimes these are grassroots initiatives. A “Yes” votes for them, a “No” against. 59 is an advisory question, number 67, on the other hand, ratifies a bill — or not. If not, the California state government will have to start from scratch.

Every serious citizen-lawmaker has spent the last few weekends studying files. This time, proposition 64, the legalization of cannabis, takes the cake, though. The description of the current and possible future situation, and the many pro and con arguments take up more than 40 pages together with the wording of the law.

Everything can be looked up, even the estimated cost or revenue. Because of course cannabis licenses were issued only for hefty fees and profits taxed accordingly. The city of Oakland is pondering a 25 percent tax on profits.

Perhaps the most expensive proposition is proposition 61. This is about whether California should be obliged to pay only the lowest price available in the U.S. for drugs for millions of government employees, prisoners or those carrying government health insurance. The pharmaceutical industry is shocked. If the bill passes, it could trigger an avalanche. Many states could follow.

For about twelve percent of its residents, California pays $3.7 billion for prescription drugs per year. Their prices have exploded in the past two years. Opponents of the proposal have received the record amount of nearly $100 million in support, virtually all donated by Big Pharma. The “No on 61” campaign’s TV spots run all day on local channels.

The death penalty is on the ballot both in Nebraska — a vote to overturn its 2015 abolition — and in Oklahoma, where voters will decide if the death penalty becomes part of the state constitution. In California there are two starkly different choices to be made on executions: one wants to abolish the execution of criminals and convert already spoken sentences into a life sentence without parole (proposition 62). The other (proposition 66) wants to shorten court procedures, so that executions can move ahead faster. Should both proposals go through, the one with fewer votes will be annulled.

Many choices for local measures are also on the ballot, 25 in San Francisco alone. They differ from community to community, ranging from the introduction of new local taxes, such as on food, to the provision of funds for the renovation of individual classrooms and the election of local deputies or officials. Because printing all of this on paper threatens to exceed all bounds, it is planned to make all documents available online at the voter’s request. Either way, conscientious voters have a lot to do.

In several states, they also have to vote on Senate seats in Washington. Currently both chambers, the Senate and House of Representatives, are controlled by the Republicans. Something that Democrats want to change — not only out of fear of a Republican President Trump, who would then have free rein to govern. According to observers, a change of control is possible, at least in the Senate. After all, 34 of 101 Senate seats are up for grabs (including that of the independent Senator Bernie Sanders). 24 of which are currently Republican held. The Democrats currently have a total of 45 seats, a gain of five, including Mr. Sanders, would give them the Senate majority, even if they lose a seat.

There’s a lot of criticism of the U.S. election model with its jumble of small print because it’s so complex and because it’s unclear how representative the decisions are, given that they count however low the turnout. But there’s a lot at stake – many observers stress that the whole thing is not a multiple-choice test, where a box has to be ticked for every question.

One group of citizen initiatives said: “No one has to vote on everything. Choose what is important and vote. ” Still, better to check a box too few than one too many.



Axel Postinett is correspondent for Handelsblatt Online in New York. To contact the author:

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