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US Voters Weigh in on Gay Marriage, Abortion


In addition to choosing a president and selecting members of Congress, voters around the United States made decisions on a wide range of topics this week, including the controversial issue of same-sex marriage. Votes to ban gay marriage were held In California, Arizona and Florida. In Washington State, voters approved a measure on doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the ballot proposals that were part of this year's historic election.

There were 153 measures on the ballot in 36 U.S. states. Business and law professor John Matsusaka says the most high-profile dealt with same-sex marriage. "There were three measures on the ballot in three different states: Arizona, California and Florida. And all three of those states approved bans on gay marriage."

Matsusaka heads the non-partisan Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. He says the California measure, called Proposition 8, will have the most impact. A state court decision in May had opened the door to gay and lesbian weddings, and 18,000 same-sex couples have gotten married in California in the past five months. Following the approval of the California ballot measure, the fate of those marriages in now uncertain. At least three lawsuits have been filed to overturn Proposition 8, with the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco joining Santa Clara County in Northern California in one of the suits.

Just two U.S. states now permit same-sex marriage, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Two other states, New Jersey and New Hampshire, allow civil unions with the same legal rights as marriage.

In other controversial ballot initiatives, efforts to ban abortion failed in South Dakota and Colorado. Voters in California turned down a measure that would have required parents to be notified before a girl under 18 has an abortion.

Despite tough economic times, John Matsusaka says voters in several states approved borrowing to support universities and improve infrastructure. "One of the other interesting things that happened in this election is that voters were very willing to approve borrowing. Fifteen out of sixteen bond measures nationwide passed."

One successful measure will allow California to borrow nearly $10 billion for a high-speed rail line to link Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project, which will cost at least $40 billion, is still in the planning stage.

In many elections, there are efforts by voters to hold down taxes, but Kareem Crayton, who teaches law and politics at the University of Southern California, says such citizen-sponsored measures were not widespread this year. "Financial measures, efforts to either raise or lower taxes, have not been as prominent."

There were 17 measures on statewide ballots dealing with taxes. Minnesotans approved an increase in the sales tax, but voters in Colorado and Nevada turned them down.

Voters in Washington State approved doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, joining the neighboring state of Oregon, which approved a similar measure in 1997.

Massachusetts decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, while Michigan approved the medical use of marijuana by some seriously ill patients.

Animal rights activists had two important victories, as voters banned commercial dog racing in Massachusetts and required a minimum living space for farm animals in California.

Nearly all U.S. states sometimes place issues on the ballot for voters to decide the matters directly. Twenty-four states also have a process that allows citizen-sponsored measures, called initiatives. They qualify for the ballot if their supporters can get enough voters to sign petitions.

In this election, voter turnout was heavy. The presidential contest drew some voters to the polls. Others came out in support of their candidates for Congress, the state assembly or school board. Los Angeles voter Hazel Johnson says that in every election, she is equally interested in the ballot measures. "There is always something on the ballot that really needs my input," she said.

Matsusaka says there was no clear pattern behind Tuesday's ballot decisions that point in either a liberal or conservative direction.

"Even though the country seemed to be shifting in the progressive or Democratic direction in the federal elections, if you look at actual votes on ballot propositions, there was really no ideological pattern. You saw some wins for progressive groups, some wins for conservative groups."

He says the voters made their decisions on a case-by-case basis.

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