Nov. 4 is not just a day to decide which candidates will fill local, state and federal legislative offices. Voters across the country also will be having their say on 146 ballot measures.
Straight to voters: Although lawmakers are chosen to make tough decisions about running a state or other levels of government, they are not averse to letting the voters decide on issues directly, especially when a matter is controversial.
That's why in a typical year the most visible and controversial propositions are initiatives and referendums, often making it onto ballots thanks to citizen petitions.
This election year, the total number of propositions is 146. That's down 17 percent from the 176 propositions in November 2012, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute. And it's well below the recent high point of 235 propositions in 1998.
Still, the topics are sure to energize voters on both sides of the ballot questions.
Tax questions always popular: Historically, tax issues are the most common ballot question subject.
You're not surprised, are you? After all, the United States traces its formal origins to those angry tea-drinking Bostonians who, absent a vote, make their thoughts about taxes known in a more dramatic fashion.
Much of the time the tax ballot questions are very narrow, such as granting a property tax exemption for certain groups of individuals. Veterans and their surviving spouses are popular beneficiaries of real estate tax breaks commonly approved directly by voters.
But sometimes, as in Georgia and Tennessee this year, the citizenry is asked to decide state approaches to taxation.
Peach State voters will determine whether there will be any future increase in Georgia's individual come tax rate.
Volunteer State voters will decide whether to constitutionally prohibit state and local income or payroll taxes. Tennessee currently collects tax only on certain investment income; that ability would remain.
Illinois voters also get a vote on whether to add a 3 percent surtax to incomes of $1 million or more. But Prairie State voters' decision yea or nay about taxing their wealthier neighbors is only advisory. State lawmakers still have the final say regardless of the final vote.
Big money for ballot initiatives: While ballot questions are a direct form of democracy, they often get a lot of attention -- and a lot of money -- from organized groups.
The Washington Post describes ballot questions as pricey playgrounds of parties and corporations, which throw big bucks into campaigns to influence their passage or defeat. For the first time in history, says the newspaper, spending on this election cycle's initiatives is likely to top $1 billion.
Alaska is a good (or bad, depending on your campaign spending perspective) example of the costs. Earlier this year, voters in the Last Frontier rejected higher taxes on oil companies, thanks no doubt in part to the $170 per vote that oil and gas companies spent urging that outcome.
As the Alaska situation demonstrates, many of the dollars come from industries with something to gain or lose from a ballot measure. But, notes CQ Roll Call's Connectivity column, sometimes the alliances are harder to explain.
For example, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Texas billionaire John Arnold each have contributed more than $1 million to Oregon's "Yes on 90" campaign. Measure 90 would introduce a top-two primary in Oregon, replacing partisan primaries with a single nonpartisan ballot. Neither out-of-state billionaire has elaborated on why they are so financially supportive of a ballot question far from their homes.
Foes become friends, at least for a while: Ballot questions also divide communities. Here in Austin, a $1 billion transportation proposal has split urban rail advocates.
If approved, the city's Proposition 1 (not to be confused with a state transportation measure also called Prop 1; OK, confusion is likely) around $600,000 of the money would build a limited commuter train line in east-central Austin.
But some advocates of increasing mass transit options in the Texas capital oppose the route that would get the money, so they've joined forces with opponents of the ballot measure.
Will you find ballot measures on your ballot next week? If so, is there much interest and/or arguing about the initiatives?
In addition to the tax questions discussed in my Bankrate story, you can check with your local or state election officials about what to expect when you go to the polls.
And if you're curious about non-tax initiatives across the country, check out the data compiled by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, Ballotpedia and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Tax or otherwise, make sure you have the facts about the ballot questions in your area and vote for or against them next Tuesday.
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