How To Read a Ballot Measure: Free Classroom Election Activity
If you need a break from the well-known national issues, take a look at some of the 174 ballot proposals offered across 37 states.
The number of measures, the highest since 2006, ranges from the legalization of marijuana, to same-sex marriage, healthcare, tax increases, bond issues, union dues, and gambling.
The nature and range of these measures provide a fitting reminder for students about the kinds of matters that fall under the authority of the states rather than the federal government. Some of the proposals are simple, such as a proposal to end sheriffs’ term limits in West Virginia. Others are more complex, such as Montana’s referendum to stay out of Obamacare.
First, some terminology on the subject of state ballot proposals. Depending on the state’s form of government, measures come to a vote through different processes. There are three basic kinds of state ballot measures:
- Initiative A proposal of a new law or constitutional amendment that is placed on the ballot by petition, that is, by collecting signatures from a certain number of citizens. There are a total of 44 initiatives on states’ ballots this election year.
- Referendum A proposal to repeal a law that was previously enacted by the legislature, and that is placed on the ballot by citizen petition. There are 12 referenda on states’ ballots this election year.
- Legislative measure or legislative proposition (“referred” measure) A proposal placed on the ballot by the legislature. There are 115 legislative measures this election year.
Ballot proposals at the national level do not occur. Initiatives and referendums also happen at the county, city, and town level, and are more frequent in local governments than statewide. Some ballot measures are amendments to the state constitution, some change existing legislation, and some reflect developments at the national level.
How to Read a Ballot Measure
The text of a ballot measure spells out the proposed legislation. If a measure involves revenue, the text may include a statement that reminds voters that revenue could be removed with no provisions for replacement. The text often concludes a description of the meaning of a Yes or For vote and a No or Against vote.
Here is the text of Montana’s LR-122:
LEGISLATIVE REFERENDUM NO. 122
AN ACT REFERRED BY THE LEGISLATURE
AN ACT PROHIBITING THE STATE OR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FROM MANDATING THE PURCHASE OF HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE OR IMPOSING PENALTIES FOR DECISIONS RELATED TO THE PURCHASE OF HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE; PROVIDING THAT THE PROPOSED ACT BE SUBMITTED TO THE QUALIFIED ELECTORS OF MONTANA; AND PROVIDING AN EFFECTIVE DATE.
LR-122 prohibits the state and federal governments from requiring the purchase of health insurance or imposing any penalty, tax, fee or fine on those who do not purchase health insurance. The prohibition does not apply to: (1) a court which orders the purchase of insurance when an individual or entity is a named party in a judicial dispute; (2) the state department of public health and human services as part of a child support enforcement action; or (3) the Montana university system as a requirement for students.
A YES vote prohibits the state or federal government from mandating the purchase of health insurance or imposing penalties for decisions related to purchasing health insurance.
A NO vote allows the state or federal government to mandate the purchase of health insurance or imposing penalties for decisions related to purchasing health insurance.
Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare
One of the nation’s most controversial issues is the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. (For more information on the candidates’ positions on healthcare, see Breaking Down the Issues: Healthcare.) In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the tax power of the ACA is constitutional. States still, however, have the option of deciding whether or not they will participate in the program.
Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Ohio have already opted not to participate in Obamacare. In November, Montana along with Alabama, Florida, and Wyoming will consider a similar measure. For Alabama, Florida, and Wyoming, the measure is proposed as a constitutional amendment; for Montana, it’s a legislatively referred state statute.
A shortlist of current state ballot measures also includes:
- California’s Proposition 34: Abolishes the death penalty
- Florida’s Amendment 11: Proposes local government tax relief for poor, elderly homeowners
- Idaho’s Proposition 2: Proposes to repeal a law tying teacher compensation to student performance on standardized tests
- Louisiana’s Amendment 4: Proposes property tax exemptions for spouses of veterans who died in service
- Washington’s Initiative 1240: Proposes the creation of 40 charter schools in the state
Hold a Classroom Debate
Help students grasp state government issues in a classroom debate.
We’ve provided three Ballot Measure worksheets on real state ballot measures: estate tax in Oregon, tobacco tax in Missouri, and college tuition in Maryland.
Follow these steps for the classroom debate:
- Introduce the Issue Read the text of the issue on the Ballot Measure worksheet. Explain any specialized vocabulary. Explain that one side will take a position in favor of the issue, while the other side will take a position against the issue.
- Designate Teams and a Moderator Divide the class into two debate teams of at least four members (one FOR and one AGAINST). Choose another student to be the moderator. Explain that the moderator keeps the debate focused and on schedule.
- Research the Issue Encourage students to do research in advance to learn more about the issue. If you are pressed for time, the debate teams can use the summaries provided at the bottom of each Ballot Measure worksheet.
- Prepare a Strategy Once all team members understand the issue and its terminology, they should work together to develop a debate strategy.
- Debate the Issue Remind students that the debate will consist of three rounds plus closing statements. Each team receives three minutes per round and two minutes for closing statements. Distribute the Classroom Debate Scorecard to those watching the debate and instruct them in how to score the debate teams.
- Score the Debaters Following closing statements, the spectators should score the debate based on who presented the best case.
- Judge the Issue Emphasize that even though a strong argument is important in a debate, other factors such as good grammar, clear diction, and a persuasive tone will reinforce the team’s position and influence the outcome of the debate. After the scoring is complete, ask for a show of hands in favor of or against the proposed state ballot measure.
To extend learning, have each student prepare a short essay stating a position on one or all three of the ballot measures. Essays should demonstrate an understanding of the issue, and the writer should use at least three arguments to support his or her position.
For more activities on debating, download our free OLE Election 2012 Classroom Activity Pack activity How Cast Your Vote, or try Green Is the New Red, White, and Blue: Debating Environmental Issues.