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FEATURE | fall 2006

Take the Initiative
A feminist guide to ballot measures that will impact women's lives

This November 7, more than 100 state ballot initiatives will offer stark choices to voters across the country. Citizens will decide whether to ban abortion, raise the minimum wage, prevent same-sex marriage, allow stem-cell research and maintain affirmative action programs—just to name a few critical issues. These particular ones will have a direct impact on women’s lives. The initiative process is a long-standing political tradition in the U.S. In fact, ballot measures in several states gave women the right to vote prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The general process is similar in the 24 states that allow initiatives: A person or group has an idea, writes a piece of legislation with a lawyer’s assistance, approves the language with the secretary of state and gathers a required number of signatures from voters to qualify for the ballot. Initiative campaigns can be quite expensive—over $398 million was spent in 2004 on 59 ballot measures—so these days measures are more often proposed by corporate or other special interests than by regular Janes. The direct democracy of the initiative process makes it a crucial testing ground for new political ideas. To give this year’s ideas a grade, read up on the initiatives summarized below—then get out in your state and vote.

Initiative topics:

Minimum wage
Reproductive rights *with additional web-exclusive coverage
Stem-cell research
Gay marriage
Affirmative action *with additional web-exclusive coverage


Minimum Wage

Measures to increase the minimum wage and index future increases to inflation are on the ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. The federal government hasn’t raised the minimum wage for nearly a decade (see “The Sin of Wages,” page 59), so the only real movement on the issue has been in 22 states and the District of Columbia, all of which now have minimums higher than the $5.15 federal standard. The majority of U.S. minimum-wage workers aren’t teenagers, contrary to popular belief: They’re adult women, nearly one-third of whom have children.


Reproductive Rights

High on every feminist’s radar is the current initiative in South Dakota to overturn the abortion bill signed into law this year. The bill outraged women across the country by including no exceptions for rape, incest and a woman’s health, and for its transparent challenge to Roe v. Wade (see “Showdown on the Plains,” page 34). But two other states’ initiatives also threaten women’s right to abortion: Oregon and California voters will consider laws requiring parental notification before teenage girls can obtain an abortion. The California contest, a rerun of last year’s losing Prop. 73 campaign, is financially supported by a publisher of Catholic newspapers, James Holman.

Additional web-exclusive coverage:

California voters going to the polls on November 7 will be confronted with yet another attempt by abortion opponents to require parental notification for young women under the age of 18 to have an abortion. Proposition 85 is almost identical to Proposition 73, which failed to pass just last year by a vote of 53 to 47 percent.

If passed, the "Parents Right to Know and Child Protection Act" would amend the California Constitution to require that a parent or legal guardian of a young woman under the age of 18 be notified 48 hours before she can legally have an abortion. Failure to comply can lead to civil suits for damages and the suspension or loss of medical license of the person performing the abortion.

The notification requirement can be waived by a judge if it is decided it is not in the best interest of the young woman to inform her parent or guardian of her intention to have an abortion. There is an exception for a medical emergency, but no exceptions for rape or incest are included in the proposal.

In reality, laws mandating notification have the same effect as laws requiring parental consent for a young woman to have an abortion. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), most young women voluntarily involve their parents in their decision to have an abortion. Young women who do not tell their parents often have good reasons for staying quiet. For these young women, "in most instances, mandatory notification poses as much of a danger as mandatory consent," according to CRR. In states where these laws have passed, desperate young women often risk their health and their lives with unsafe or illegal abortions in order to avoid telling their parents.

The November 7 ballot in Oregon will include Measure 43 which would require that a physician send a certified letter - with at least 48 hours notice - to the parent of a young woman 15, 16 or 17 years old who is seeking an abortion. Under existing Oregon law, minors 14 years or younger are already required to obtain parental permission for medical treatment. Under this measure, doctors must also obtain, and keep in their files, a copy of a picture ID of the parent. Non-compliance with the notification requirements can result in civil lawsuits by parents and even loss of medical licenses.

The only alternative to the parental notification is for the young woman to seek a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge from the Oregon Department of Human Services. Administrative Law Judges are not even required to be lawyers and have no special training to hear these appeals.

A similar parental notification measure was defeated by Oregon voters in 1990 by a vote of 52 to 48 percent, and the legislature also failed to pass a bill with similar provisions in 2005.


Stem-Cell Research

A closely watched Missouri measure would overturn a ban on stem cell research that was recently approved by the state legislature. The effort to overturn is backed by patients’ groups and medical researchers who are optimistic about using stem cells to treat Parkinson’s, diabetes and even spinal-cord injuries. Supporters of the ban include far-right pundit Alan Keyes, speaking on behalf of Missouri Right to Life, who recently described stem-cell research as the moral equivalent of Nazi medical experiments.”



The so- called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” is the most widespread of this year’s right- wing initiative strategies. Originally headed to the ballot in 24 states, its chances have narrowed to just six states after massive public outcry and the expression of misgivings by various tax-limitation supporters, such as chambers of commerce. Maine and Oregon will definitely vote on TABOR, while TABOR initiatives in Michigan, Montana, Nebraska and Nevada were still undergoing legal challenges at the time of publication. TABOR would severely limit state spending through a complicated for mula based on inflation plus population growth; any new spending would have to be put to an expensive public vote. Pushed by national anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, TABOR is financed by New York City real estate investor Howie Rich and opposed by education advocates, health and human service organizations, teachers and firefighters, among others. Colorado, the only state to have lived with TABOR (having passed it in 1992), suspended the law in 2005 after spending for K-12 education dropped to almost last in the nation, the number of low-income children without health insurance ballooned and access to basic vaccines plummeted.


Gay Marriage

Although bans on same-sex marriage may have swung some voters to Bush in 2004, will they do the trick again this year? Eight states are putting the issue to a vote: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Wisconsin, South Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. In most of these states, the laws would not just prevent gay marriage and civil unions, but eliminate domestic-partner benefits. On the other hand, Colorado is also offering a measure to support domestic partnerships. And unlike the underfunded campaigns opposing the 2004 gay-marriage bans, this year’s efforts are better funded and coordinated, especially in Wisconsin, Arizona and Colorado.


Affirmative Action

Ward Connerly, the African American California businessman who spearheaded ballot measures in California and Washington state in opposition to affirmative action, has now taken his road show to Michigan, with an initiative that would end affirmative action in public education, public employment and public contracting (see Ms., Spring 2006). Foes of the nitiative believe it will roll back advances women and minorities have made in the state and fail to correct still-glaring inequities—and some suggest that Connerly seeks to diminish competition from women- and minority-owned businesses for lucrative government contracts.

Additional web-exclusive coverage:

Michigan 's November 7 ballot will include a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would end affirmative action in public university admissions, state employment, and state contracting. The measure is a direct attack on the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that allowed race to remain a factor in admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.

The title of the initiative, The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), and its promoters misled many into signing petitions they thought they were to place a pro-affirmative action measure on the November 7 ballot. A legal challenge to keep the measure off the ballot under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was rejected by a federal judge, who ruled that he could not remove the MCRI from the ballot, as there was no violation of the Voting Rights Act, even though he recognized that the promoters engaged in voter fraud.

Michigan U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Tarnow criticized the Michigan state courts, the Board of State Canvassers, secretary of state, attorney general and state Bureau of Elections for failing to investigate the fraud complaints and for not keeping the measure off the ballot.

A preview of the potential consequences of the MCRI can be seen in California , where Proposition 209, also spearheaded by Ward Connerly, passed in 1996. Prop 209 amended the California constitution to prohibit affirmative action in public employment, education, and contracting, effectively ending affirmative action in the state. Among the negative consequences attributed to Prop 209 is a decrease of enrolled black and Latino students in the state's most prestigious universities - Berkeley and Los Angeles . The University of California has also noted a significant decline in the number of female faculty since Proposition 209 was implemented in 1996

Women and minorities also experienced setbacks gaining state contracts following Proposition 209 in California . For example, a 2004 study by Discrimination Research Center (DRC) and Equal Rights Advocates showed that the ban on affirmative action in contracting had reversed "years of progress" women had made in gaining construction jobs under state contracts. Specifically, the percentage of women employed in the construction industry dropped 33 percent following the passage of Prop 209, despite an overall increase in the number of people employed in the construction industry. The DRC also reported that two-thirds of the certified Minority Business Enterprises in the transportation construction industry were gone ten years after Proposition 2009 went into effect.

For a comprehensive report on all qualified 2006 ballot measures, go to

Kristina Wilfore is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.