Florida Felon-Voting Win Leads Way Among U.S. Ballot Initiatives

(Bloomberg) -- Floridians restored voting rights to about 1.5 million felons Tuesday, ending one of the nation’s most-restrictive laws for people with previous convictions, according to projections from the Associated Press.

Passage of Amendment 4 will allow felons -- excluding people convicted of murder and sexual offenses -- to vote once they have served their sentences, without going through a five- or seven-year process of appealing to a state clemency board. It also could boost Democrats’ fortunes in Florida, the third-most populous state.

African Americans, traditionally a reliable Democratic voting bloc, account for an outsize share of those who stand to have their voting rights restored. More than 21 percent of black Floridians are disenfranchised, compared with 10 percent of the Sunshine State’s total population.

Allowing felons to vote potentially will “turn Florida a bluer shade of purple,” Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said before Tuesday’s results were announced. “If it passes, it has the potential to expand the Florida electorate and have it at least move somewhat in a more Democrat direction.”

Florida’s felon-voting rights were among the most consequential of the many ballot propositions and amendments on ballots across the country on Tuesday, including some that proposed new regulations on business or expanded citizens’ rights.

In California, voters rejected measures that would have rolled back an unpopular gas tax and imposed new limits on rent, West Virginia’s decided to limit access to abortions, and voters in North Dakota killed a measure to legalize recreational marijuana.

Among the most significant ballot initiatives Tuesday were:

Weed in North Dakota

North Dakota rejected a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana Tuesday when the state’s voters killed Measure 3, which failed to get a simple majority. North Dakotans had approved the distribution of medical marijuana two years ago.

Supporters of legalized recreational use for anyone 21 and older included people frustrated at the lack of medical dispensaries and farmers eager to grow hemp, said Dave Owen, chairman of the pro-cannabis group Legalize ND. Opponents including former North Dakota Attorney General Robert Wefald worried about people smoking weed in public places and exposure of the drug to children.

“We think it’s going to be nothing but problems for North Dakota,” Wefald said in a recent interview with Bloomberg before the vote.

Fracking in Colorado

In a win for oil and gas producers, Coloradans voted down a measure to require new drilling projects in the state to be at least 2,500 feet from occupied buildings and “vulnerable” areas such as lakes and rivers.

Proposition 112 became a lightning rod in Colorado. Oil and gas companies raised more than $41 million to defeat the measure, compared with just $1.3 million gathered by proponents. The push to limit development in the Rocky Mountain state comes as oil production soars to record highs, driven by activity in the prolific D-J Basin just north of Denver.

The ballot measure would have more than doubled the distance required between occupied buildings and drilling projects -- largely hydraulic fracturing. Supporters backed the measure out of concern over health risks and environment effects from so-called “fracking,” while oil and gas interests argued it would cripple the industry and eliminate thousands of jobs.

A recent poll by the University of Colorado-Boulder’s American Politics Research Lab had the proposition getting the support of 52 percent of voters, although the school called the issue “too close to call.” The proposition needed just a simply majority to pass.

West Virginia Abortion

West Virginians passed a ballot initiative to put new restrictions on using state Medicaid funds for certain abortions, according to the Associated Press.

West Virginia is an overwhelmingly anti-abortion state, with 58 percent of adults there saying the procedure should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

Backers of Amendment 1 sought to capitalize on that sentiment by preventing state Medicaid dollars from going toward “elective” abortions, while allowing for it in medical emergencies. Supporters and opponents differ over whether it allows for Medicaid payments in cases of rape, incest and fetal anomaly.

Some West Virginia state senators who pushed the bill were open about wanting to use the abortion issue as a way to promote turnout among conservative voters, said Margaret Chapman Pomponio of the reproductive rights group WV Free. A simple majority is needed for an amendment to pass in West Virginia.

Florida Gambling

Florida voters approved Amendment 3 to the state’s constitution, giving themselves power to block any expansion of casino gambling.

The ballot initiative’s opponents, led by casino companies and sports teams, argued that it would effectively kill outside gaming companies’ efforts to move into the Sunshine State, as well as hopes of bringing sports gambling to Florida.

Going forward, 60 percent voter approval will be needed for any new gambling. The amendment protects the hegemony of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates gambling establishments under federal law allowing Native Americans to do so. It was supported by the Seminoles and entertainment giant Walt Disney Co., which gets to protect its brand of Florida tourism.

California Gas Taxes, Rent Control

Golden State voters rejected Proposition 6, an effort to repeal increases to California’s fuel and vehicle taxes enacted last year by the Democrat-controlled state legislature. Governor Jerry Brown signed the tax package, which boosted gas taxes by 12 cents a gallon, to raise $5 billion for transportation improvements. However, many Californians quickly soured on the tax increase after years of shouldering among the nation’s highest gas prices.

GOP leaders saw the issue potentially stoking turnout among Republicans and spent heavily to promote Proposition 6, although support for the gas tax rollback faltered in recent weeks. A mid-October poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed the measure would likely fail by a small margin.

California voters killed Proposition 10, a measure that would have expanded the ability of cities and counties to regulate rents. Californians renters typically pay 50 percent more for housing than renters in other states and in some cases pay more than double, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Certain cities already have rent control measures, but a state law limits their scope. For example, local governments can’t put rent caps on single-family homes or to any housing completed after February 1995. Proposition 10 would have eliminated those restrictions and allowed for rent controls on any type of housing. A political committee affiliated with a California Realtors group and large apartment owners were major opponents.