Ballot Measures to Watch This November

A ballot being cast into a ballot box that includes various New York-specific ballot measures flanked by a thumbs-up sign and a thumbs-down sign

Two weeks ago, we highlighted some of the most important and most interesting races on the ballot this November. But political offices aren’t the only things that will be on the ballot. Several states are also holding votes on ballot measures on subjects ranging from amending their constitutions to approving bonds for transportation projects. In today’s piece, we highlight some of the measures up for approval — including significant voting expansions in New York and constitutional amendments that would create new rights for citizens of several states.

New York is voting on several proposals to overhaul voting and redistricting in the state.

While most of New York State’s biggest elections aren’t until next year, on Nov. 2 New Yorkers will have the opportunity to weigh in on some constitutional amendments that will make it much easier to cast a ballot. New York was known for having one of the worst voting systems in the country, although Democrats have passed substantial improvements in recent years, like early voting preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Also on the ballot is a package of changes to the state’s redistricting process, all wrapped up into a single question.

Proposal 1 — Redistricting

In 2014, New York voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that created a 10 member advisory commission for redistricting — eight selected by the two major political parties and two independents. The commission draws maps for the Legislature’s approval, though the Legislature can substitute an amended map if it first rejects two commission-drawn maps. Proposal 1 makes several updates and revisions to this process, the most important being the vote thresholds required for the Legislature to adopt one of the commission’s plans. Currently, if one party controls both chambers, a two-thirds majority is required for approval. If Proposal 1 is passed, a simple majority is sufficient.

Other changes include:

  • Amending the schedule for redistricting, both to account for delays in the census this year and to accommodate New York’s new June primary date for future redistricting cycles.
  • Capping the total number of state senators at 63.
  • Banning the practice of prison gerrymandering for both legislative and congressional redistricting.

Practically, the amendments will not have much impact on how New York carries out redistricting this cycle, as the Democratic party holds the two-thirds majorities needed to pass or amend the commission’s maps without Republican votes. Nevertheless, Republicans in the Empire State contend Proposal 1 represents a Democratic power grab, with Syracuse Rep. John Faso (R) calling it “a very cynical maneuver” to “consolidate power.”

Proposal 3 — Voter Registration

Proposal 3 removes the constitutional requirement that you must register to vote at least 10 days before an election. This requirement prevents the Legislature from enacting same-day voter registration, which exists in 18 other states as of 2021. If Proposal 3 is approved, the Legislature would still have to pass a law to allow same-day registration, although Democratic leaders in both houses indicate they plan to do so.

Proposal 4 — Absentee Voting

Finally, Proposal 4 would remove the constitutional requirement that voters must have an excuse to vote with an absentee ballot. Currently, most voters in New York can only vote absentee if they will be out of their home county on Election Day or are unable to appear at the polls due to illness or disability. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a bill last year that temporarily expanded access to absentee voting due to COVID-19; this amendment will pave the way for permanent no-excuse absentee voting in New York. Like Proposal 3, Proposal 4 would also require the Legislature to pass implementing legislation.

A few states are deciding whether to add new rights to their constitutions.

In addition to the changes to voting and redistricting, New York is also considering adding a right to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment” to its state constitution. If Proposal 2 is approved by voters, New York would join Pennsylvania, Montana and Massachusetts in recognizing a right to a healthy environment. More than just a symbolic measure, the amendment would create an actionable right by requiring the state government to consider impacts on human health and allow citizens to go to court to enforce that right if necessary. Pennsylvanians have used the right in their state constitution to invalidate portions of an oil and gas law, while advocates in Montana successfully used theirs to fight the dumping of arsenic-polluted water in state rivers.

Meanwhile, Mainers will be voting on a proposal to enshrine a right to food in the state constitution. Maine’s Question 3 would create “a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume food.” The amendment builds on an earlier bill passed in 2017 that created a first-in-the-nation food sovereignty law. The new right is not expected to have significant short-term effects, and any long-term impact is uncertain and depends on how state courts interpret and enforce the amendment. Opponents point to the vagueness of the amendment and uncertain long-term implications as reasons to vote no, while supporters argue it would help with food security.

Finally, Texans have a chance to weigh in on two amendments to the constitution proposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Proposition 3 prohibits governments in the state from limiting or prohibiting religious services, while Proposition 6 establishes a right for residents of nursing or assisted-living facilities to designate an essential caregiver that cannot be prohibited from visiting under any circumstances. Both amendments would prohibit some of the mitigation measures governments took to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Texas, like a March 2020 order restricting access to nursing facilities or limits placed by Harris County on religious gatherings. These propositions in Texas follow ballot measures earlier this year in Pennsylvania that placed restrictions on the Governor’s ability to declare a state of emergency in response to a pandemic. With COVID-19 restrictions highly controversial in many states, these will not be the last ballot measures designed to restrict pandemic responses put before the voters.

Most other ballot measures ask voters to approve new programs, changes to taxation or enact other modifications to state law.

Changes to New York’s voting laws and proposals creating new constitutional rights aren’t the only things on the ballot this November. A few other states will also have votes to authorize bonds, modify taxes or enact changes to state law. These measures range from Colorado’s Proposition 119, which would give low-income families money for out-of-school learning programs, to New Jersey’s Public Question 1, which would permit gambling on college athletic events that take place in the state. 

Wondering if there are any ballot measures in your state this year? A full list can be found here.