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FEATURE | Fall 2014

Measure by Measure

The upcoming election gives state voters a voice on women’s rights


IN NOVEMBER, VOTERS WILL have the opportunity to decide several critical issues in their states—from banning abortion and birth control to legalizing marijuana to raising the minimum wage to increasing voting rights to restricting labor rights to granting state constitutional rights for women.

State ballot measures are a significant part of the U.S. political process, allowing voters to engage directly in our democracy. Each state has its own rules about how a measure makes it to the ballot but, in general, a measure can be referred to the ballot either by the state legislature or by a group of citizens who collect the required number of signatures.

Through ballot measures, citizens this fall will, for better or worse, create change that will potentially have long-lasting effects. Here are a few critical measures affecting women this fall. Read up, then get out and vote!

Anti-abortion and anti-birth-control extremists continue to push for state constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion and some forms of birth control by granting rights to fetuses, embryos and fertilized eggs. After passing a series of anti-abortion bills into law in 2013, the North Dakota state legislature, ignoring opposition from the North Dakota Medical Association, placed on the ballot Measure 1 to amend the state constitution to provide an “inalienable right to life” at “any stage of development.” If passed by the voters, supporters say it will ban all abortions cretions in the state, without exception, and could make illegal many forms of birth control, stem-cell research and in vitro fertilization. Measure 1 also threatens end-of-life care and could interfere with organ donation.

Personhood USA’s Colorado chapter is trying a different tactic. Colorado voters have twice soundly defeated broad personhood amendments to the Colorado constitution, in 2008 and 2010, but the new Amendment 67— which would amend the state constitution to define “person” and “child” to include “unborn human beings”— would only affect the state criminal code and Wrongful Death Act.

Though the strategy is arguably different, the result is the same. If passed, Amendment 67 would threaten abortion rights, birth control, fertility treatments and some medical treatments for critically ill pregnant women—and open up the possibility of criminal investigations into miscarriages. All pregnant women’s bodies would become potential crime scenes. Supporters of the amendment claim that the change would protect pregnant women from crime—but we’ve heard that one before. The reality is that these laws are used to punish women, many who are struggling with drug dependency and mental-health issues and too often suffer tragic pregnancy outcomes.

In Tennessee, women’srights groups and reproductivehealth advocates are fighting against Amendment 1, a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to declare that there is no right to abortion in Tennessee—even in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. If passed, the amendment would give the state legislature even more room to create far-reaching restrictions on abortion access, even for women in the most tragic circumstances. The Tennessee constitution provides some of the strongest privacy rights in the nation, but this amendment would take away those rights and open the door further to government interference in women’s personal decision-making.

Just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell (see Page 10) that owners of closely held corporations could refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control on religious grounds, legislators in Illinois decided to put a related question to the voters: “Shall any health insurance plan in Illinois that provides prescription drug coverage be required to include prescription birth control as part of that coverage?” Although the outcome of the advisory referendum will not be binding and this coverage is already required under Illinois law, an overwhelming “yes” vote this November would signal a strong level of state support for the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive-coverage benefit.

This year saw increased activity in support of constitutional protections against sex discrimination. In Oregon, Vote ERA collected more than 118,000 signatures to place Measure 89 on the ballot to determine whether an equal rights amendment should be added to the state constitution. If it passes, Oregon will join 20 other states in having a state constitutional prohibition on sex discrimination. And the Oregon measure adds to the momentum created in state legislatures to ratify the federal ERA. The Virginia Senate, for example, has voted for the third time since 2011 to ratify the ERA (the House failed to bring the measure to a vote), and the Illinois House is expected to vote on ERA ratification this fall. In May, the Illinois Senate also overwhelmingly voted for ratification, and if the ERA passes the state House, Illinois will become the 36th state to ratify the federal ERA.

With federal minimum-wage legislation stalled in Congress, state and local governments such as Hawaii and Seattle have increased minimum wages on their own. Now Alaska and South Dakota will offer measures on their ballots to increase the minimum wage. Women make up the majority of low-wage workers, so would especially benefit from an increase, which would help close the gender pay gap, reduce women’s poverty and provide more economic security for families. Neither Alaska nor South Dakota propose to raise their minimum wage as high as $10.10—as the federal bill would—but both are moving in the right direction.

State voter-suppression laws—which disproportionately hurt women and people of color—have resurged since last year’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Proponents of voting rights are now going on the offensive and directly to voters. Illinois voters can determine whether the state should amend its constitution to strengthen voting rights, and Connecticut voters will decide whether to amend their state constitution to allow early voting.

Reprinted from the Fall issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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