Marijuana, corporate power among the ballot questions facing Southern voters

In this election voters in Arkansas and Florida will weigh in on ballot questions on medical marijuana. They're among the 38 ballot measures being considered this year by voters in Southern states. (Photo by Chuck Coker via Flickr.)

This year voters in 35 states will weigh in on a total of 163 statewide ballot measures on a wide range of topics, from hot-button issues like legalizing marijuana to more mundane matters like tax policy. Eight of those measures were voted on before November, leaving 155 statewide measures for consideration in the general election.

Voters in seven Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia — are considering a total of 38 ballot measures this year. Three were voted on before the general election, including the sole 2016 ballot measure in North Carolina: a $2 billion bond issue for public improvements, which voters approved in the March primary.

Alabama alone has 14 amendments on the November ballot. Those approved by voters will join the more than 900 amendments added over the years to the state's sprawling constitution, the longest one in use anywhere in the world.

Nationwide, an unusually high number of this year's statewide ballot measures — 72 — were put there by citizens rather than legislatures. In fact, it's been a decade since there were as many citizen-initiated measures on state ballots, with more than twice as many qualifying as in 2014. In part that's because voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was the lowest since World War II and consequently reduced many states' signature requirements for ballot initiatives.

In all, 24 states allow citizen-initiated laws and/or constitutional amendments. But only three of the 13 Southern states do: Arkansas, which allows initiated laws and amendments, and Florida and Mississippi, which allow citizen-initiated amendments only. Of the 38 ballot measures being considered in Southern states this year, only four were citizen-initiated.

The following are some of the more contentious issues on this year's general election ballots in Southern states:

* Medical marijuana in Arkansas and Florida

No Southern states currently allow the use of medical marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, but that could soon change. A record number of measures to decriminalize or legalize marijuana are on state ballots this year, including in the Southern states of Arkansas and Florida.

In fact, Arkansas has two measures on the ballot to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes: a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment titled Issue 6, and a citizen-initiated statute called the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, known as Issue 7. An important difference between the two questions is whether some patients would be allowed to grow marijuana at home: Issue 6 does not allow homegrown medical marijuana while Issue 7 does. If both initiatives win majority approval, the one with the most "yes" votes will supersede the other.

Meanwhile, Florida voters will consider the Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, on this year's ballot as Amendment 2. Florida already has a medical marijuana program, created by the legislature in 2014, allowing very limited use of medical pot. A "yes" vote for this year's citizen-initiated constitutional amendment would expand the program so more Floridians would qualify to use medical marijuana, while a "no" vote would keep the state's current, more limited program in place.

Florida voters considered a similar amendment on medical marijuana back in 2014. While 58 percent of voters favored that year's Amendment 2, "Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions," it failed to win the 60 percent required for passage.

* Protecting the electric utility monopoly in Florida

Besides the medical marijuana question, Florida voters will weigh in on another controversial initiated ballot question in this year's general election.

The formal title of Amendment 1 is the "Florida Solar Energy Subsidies and Personal Solar Use Amendment," which has misled many voters into thinking that it is pro-solar. But in fact, the initiative is backed by the state's investor-owned electric utility companies including Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light — the lead funders of the $21.5 million "yes" campaign" — and would help them maintain their monopoly power at a time when growing numbers of households are turning to rooftop generation.

The proposed amendment would put the right to purchase or lease solar equipment into the state constitution. But the amendment's opponents, who span the political spectrum from Greenpeace to the Tea Party Network, note that Floridians already have that right. They charge that the "false promises" of additional rights are a ruse to mislead voters. Opponents also object to the following language that the amendment would add to the state constitution:

State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.

The assumptions that solar customers are "subsidized" by non-solar customers and that non-solar customers need additional protections are false, opponents argue. They're concerned that the large monopoly utilities are looking for ways to limit customer-owned solar and will use the amendment to justify levying unfair fees and penalties for solar customers, thus slowing the transition to more climate-friendly generation.

* Anti-union constitutional amendments in Alabama and Virginia

The only states where voters are considering whether to add so-called "right to work" amendments to their constitutions this year are in the South: Alabama and Virginia. Such measures prohibit employers from requiring workers to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment, thus effectively outlawing union shops. Union advocates argue that such policies are unfair because they allow employees to benefit from collective bargaining without paying for it.

Alabama and Virginia already have right to work laws on the books, as do 24 other states, including every state in the South except Kentucky. Most Southern states passed their laws in the 1940s and ‘50s, but the former union stronghold of West Virginia passed its version in 2016. Adding a right to work provision to the constitution, as have seven other states to date — among them Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi in the South — would make it harder to change the law.

Referred to the ballot by the Republican-controlled state legislature, the Alabama Right to Work Amendment will appear as Amendment 8. A "yes" vote supports enshrining the anti-union policy in Alabama's constitution. If approved, it would not apply to contracts already in force.

Virginia's proposed right-to-work amendment was also referred to the ballot by state lawmakers. Its supporters have said the move aims to block future lawmakers from undoing the state's existing right-to-work law, while state House Minority Leader David Toscano, a Democrat, has argued that the constitution should not be changed "willy-nilly."

Both the Alabama and Virginia measures are opposed by organized labor as well as by Our Revolution, a 501c4 "social welfare" nonprofit that advocates for the progressive policies of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and former Democratic presidential candidate.

* State intervention in Georgia's troubled public schools

At the top of the list of the four legislatively referred amendments facing Georgia voters' this fall is Amendment 1, titled the Georgia Authorization of the State Government to Intervene in Failing Local Schools. A "yes" vote would allow the creation of a new state agency to oversee troubled public schools with another state schools superintendent — but unlike the current superintendent, this one would not be elected but appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

The ballot measure is part of a broader effort by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) to create what's known as an Opportunity School District. Under this program, the superintendent would pick out schools that earned failing grades on the state's accountability system three years in a row and then decide whether to close them, run them, or convert them to charter schools. There could be a maximum of 100 schools in the state district at a given time.

The amendment is opposed by teachers' groups, some education scholars and advocates, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who argues against the creation of a new bureaucracy unaccountable to parents and communities. A report released last year by the Southern Education Foundation and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University noted that the Georgia proposal is based on school takeover initiatives in Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan that have failed to consistently improve student outcomes but instead "have destabilized schools, angered parents and demoralized educators."

For a complete list of this year's statewide ballot initiatives, visit the Ballotpedia website.