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What does it mean that American voters rejected ballot measures at higher rate this year?

Daniel B. WoodThe Christian Science Monitor

Some 174 ballot measures in 38 states on issues ranging from education to public unions to physician-assisted suicide provide many messages to America. But Wednesday morning, two important takeaways seemed clear, several political analysts say.

First, only 76 percent of the of the 115 measures put on the ballot by state legislatures passed, which is down slightly from the 85-plus percent average from 2000 to 2010, according to Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Forty-one percent of 42 voter initiatives passed.

“It’s fair to say that voters took a more negative view of statewide ballot measures this year than they usually do,” she says via e-mail.

Second, the historic success of same-sex marriage ballot measures, as well as the legalization of recreational marijuana in two states, points to evolving trends in American culture.

“If there's one trend that emerges out of the many ballot measures, it's selective social liberalism,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. Legal marijuana and same-sex marriage “were fringe issues a generation ago.”

Ballot fatigue?

The more negative view of ballot measures is a result of ballot fatigue after the number of ballot measures skyrocketed in the late 1980s and early '90s, says Ms. Bowser. From the 1980s to the late '90s, the number of measures on the ballot in an average year nearly tripled, she says.

Meanwhile, campaigns for initiatives increasingly involved huge amounts of money and advertising, including mailers as well as – in richer campaigns – blanket television ads, cajoling voters to “read this more carefully … this measure is not what it sounds like.” Some of this money poured in from out of state, increasing many voters' suspicion of the motivations for the initiatives.

After a while, Bowser says, the voters realize they must invest more and more time to figure out their positions. “They sort of conclude, ‘Why do you keep asking me all of this?’ ” she says. And the default position becomes a rejection. “I don’t know the policy, so I’m voting no,” she says.

Others agree. “I’m a professor who looks at initiatives for a living, and I’m overwhelmed by this,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

She notes that California had 11 propositions on the ballot Tuesday. “You’d have to surmise that the average voter can’t help but see this as a lot of work. When they are already mad at politicians and the system, that can’t help matters.”

But others say voters' memories aren't so long. “I don’t think voters at all behave in the current year based on the numbers of measures five or 10 years ago,” says John Matsusaka, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

'Selective social liberalism'

The success of gay marriage, in particular, was stunning Tuesday. Previously, 31 states had considered ballot measures on gay marriage, and all 31 had voted against gay marriage. On Tuesday, that reversed completely. Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage, and Maryland voters passed a referendum backing the gay-marriage law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year. Exit polls show Washington State was poised to do the same. (Washington's mail-in ballots mean the vote has not been counted yet.) Meanwhile, Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Recreational marijuana's track record was not so extensive, though a California ballot initiative lost in 2010. Tuesday, a legal marijuana measure passed in Colorado and appeared set to pass in Washington State, too. A third was rejected in Oregon.

The reasons for the shift on same-sex marriage could be twofold, says Professor Pitney. For one, he says, a majority of voters don't see the activity as hurting anyone. “In same-sex marriage, no one gets hurt – and even the strongest opponents admit that whatever impacts may be indirect,” says Pitney.

He suggests that attitudes on marijuana have likewise shifted.

“When I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, the older generation treated marijuana use with great fear and suspicion, equating it with harder drugs," he says. "Now, I am the older generation, remembering that in certain days in college, you could get high by second-hand smoke just by breathing heavily. For my students, it’s a head scratcher that people ever thought same-sex marriage was a big deal … and likewise with marijuana.”

Second, he says, public opinions about a once-taboo activity are changing as familiarity grows.

He surmises President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage this year was not necessarily the tipping point of acceptance but was following changes already in play. Now, as advocates point out, there is more acceptance because more people see gay couples in situations that have normalized the relationships.

USC's Professor Matsusaka notes that support for marijuana and same-sex marriage is not just about young people. Indeed, a July study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found support for gay marriage rising across all generations.

“It’s very clear to me that public opinion has just changed on both marijuana and same-sex marriage … it’s not generational at all,” he says. “People of all ages have just changed their minds.”

That evolution at the ballot box, others say, is merely the sign of a shift that has already happened in society – it is not a leading indicator.

“The impact of the changes produced at the ballot box are dwarfed by the impacts on those same issues by activist judges, legislatures, and even the president,” says Michael Shires, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “The initiatives are more of an echo of those broader social changes rather than the primary groundswell of liberalism. Even in the case of recreational marijuana, most states have reduced the penalties associated with recreational use to the point that it is essentially decriminalized.”

But other social issues that don't fit these criteria have not fared as well, says Pitney. For instance, voters in Massachusetts rejected the Death With Dignity Act, leaving Oregon and Washington as the only states that allow physician-assisted suicide. And California voted to keep the death penalty.

“Californians rejected a move to scrap the death penalty," Pitney says. "As a younger generation comes of age, certain social attitudes are changing, but some attitudes are changing more than others.”