Voters in most states across the South will be weighing in on statewide ballot measures in this year's general election on a range of issues from voting rights to criminal justice.
While some of the measures are being actively opposed by progressive groups — like the proposals to further restrict abortion rights in Alabama and West Virginia, the "Nix All Six" campaign to defeat the half-dozen proposed constitutional amendments that are confusing voters in North Carolina, and the Alabama amendment to allow display of the Bible's Ten Commandments on public property — others have the potential to shape a more progressive future for the region.
First, some background on this year's ballot measures: Of the 13 Southern states, 10 have questions on the ballot in the 2018 general election, for a total of 44 measures up for a vote across the region, according to Ballotpedia. The only Southern states without ballot questions this year are Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, while Florida is among the states with the most, at 12. By comparison, in the 2014 midterm elections there were 41 statewide ballot measures in 12 of the 13 Southern states, with Kentucky the only state in the South with none.
Nationwide this November, voters in 37 states will decide on a total of 155 statewide ballot measures. In all, 168 statewide ballot measures were certified for 2018 in 38 states, but 12 were decided before the general election. Since 2010, the average number of statewide measures on the ballot in even-numbered years has been 173.
Most of the measures on ballots in Southern states this year, as in the nation as a whole, were put there by legislatures, though in Florida a politically-appointed commission created to revise the state constitution is responsible for most of them. Given the Republican Party's current regional lock on state government, it's no surprise that most of the legislatively-referred questions reflect conservative ideology.
But there are also ballot questions in Southern states — some of them citizen-initiated — that, depending on how they're answered, could expand voting rights, create a fairer economy, and protect the environment. Here are the 2018 ballot measures that, if passed, have the potential to create a more just and sustainable South:
* Increasing the minimum wage in Arkansas. Issue 5, known as the Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, is a citizen-initiated proposed statute that would raise the state's hourly minimum wage from $8.50 (a wage that itself was the result of a successful 2014 state ballot initiative) to $11 by 2021. The committee supporting Issue 5 is Arkansans for a Fair Wage, whose leading funders include the Sixteen Thirty Fund, The Fairness Project, and the National Employment Law Project. Opposing Issue 5 is Arkansans for a Strong Economy, whose largest donor is the McDonalds Local Owner Operators PAC. A total of 67,887 signatures were needed to qualify the measure for the ballot, and supporters collected over 84,000 valid signatures. A poll released last month found that 60 percent of voters support the proposal, which needs a simple majority vote to pass.
* Ex-felon re-enfranchisement in Florida. Voters in Florida will be weighing in on Amendment 4, added to the ballot through a citizen initiative process that required 766,200 valid signatures but collected over 799,000. The amendment would automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions — except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense — once they've completed their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation. Florida is one of only four states with a lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions, and it currently has the highest disenfranchisement rate for former felons in the country, with 1.4 million residents permanently barred from voting because of the policy, which disproportionately affects people of color. The amendment is supported by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, whose top donor so far has been the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the measure's opponents are the conservative Florida Family Policy Council and a nonprofit called Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy. In Florida, a proposed constitutional amendment needs 60 percent of the vote to pass rather than a simple majority.
* Banning oil and gas drilling in Florida. A number of the questions on the ballot in Florida this year controversially involve multiple issues, a practice known as "logrolling." They include Amendment 9, a "yes" vote for which would constitutionally ban oil and gas drilling off the state's coast as well as add tobacco vaping to the existing prohibition on tobacco smoking in indoor workplaces. The question was referred to the ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, a 37-member group appointed mostly by the legislature that meets every 20 years to propose changes to the state constitution — the only such group nationwide. The amendment would prohibit drilling, for exploration or extraction, of oil or natural gas in state waters. Though the state currently has a law against drilling in state waters, there is concern that it could be rescinded, as the state House tried to do in 2009. The "Vote Yes on 9" campaign has numerous supporters, including environmental organizations and business groups such as the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Opponents include the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Petroleum Council.
* Unanimous jury verdict requirement in Louisiana. Referred to the ballot by the state legislature, Amendment 2 would require the unanimous agreement of jurors to convict in felony cases, rather than just 10 of 12 jurors as under current law. Louisiana is one of only two states that don't require unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials, though the other state — Oregon — does require them in murder cases. Louisiana began allowing non-unanimous verdicts after Reconstruction as a way to boost the state's convict-leasing system, which served to ensure cheap labor after the end of chattel slavery. The campaign supporting Amendment 2 is led by the Yes on 2 Ballot Committee and has the backing of Louisiana's Democratic and Republican parties as well as numerous civil rights and faith groups; opponents include Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry. The top contributors to the Yes on 2 Ballot Committee are the pro-democracy Open Society Foundations established by progressive billionaire George Soros; the conservative Koch network also supports the measure. In Louisiana, a simple majority vote is all that's needed to approve a constitutional amendment.