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Ballot Questions Draw Voters In 43 States

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This fall's elections are not just for seats in Congress or state houses. Just a little under 150 ballot measures will be voted on November 4 across 42 states. The proposals cover a lot of ground from minimum wage to gun rights to bear-baiting. And they're luring voters to the polls like bears to doughnuts.

We're joined now by NPR's politics editor Charlie Mahtesian. Charlie thanks for being with us.

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Great to be here Scott.

SIMON: We're going to get to the donuts, right? Let's assure people, it's breakfast time after all. What's the general landscape look like?

MAHTESIAN: Well, it's a little crowded out there this fall since the majority of states will have questions on the ballot. And the subjects range from everything from abortion to minimum wage hikes to tax issues to marijuana legalization. But I think what's really interesting is that the actual number of ballot measures - 146 - is surprisingly low compared to other recent election years. It's been a quarter-century since we saw so few ballot measures.

SIMON: And can we fairly anticipate - particularly in those states where ballot measures are particularly controversial, there's been a lot of publicity about them - that they could affect statewide elections?

MAHTESIAN: Sure. Certainly political strategist have noticed that in, for example, four of the red states where there are competitive or open seat Senate races this fall, there are going be ballot measures that aim to raise the state minimum wage. And in those four states - Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota - those measures could have a significant impact because they dovetail with a key part of the national Democratic agenda this fall, and that highlights issues of economic fairness and also includes proposals to increase the federal minimum wage.

SIMON: What are some of the propositions across the states that stand out for you?

MAHTESIAN: Well, there are definitely some unusual ones this year. A question on the main ballot, for example, would ban the practice of baiting bears in order to hunt them. Black bears, it turns out, happen to have a sweet tooth for doughnuts. And some people use doughnuts and other junk food to lure them. That would be banned under this measure. Here's another one that I think stands out among the pack. In New York there's an amendment that would allow bills in the legislature to be distributed in electronic form.

SIMON: Now when you say bills, you mean legislation?

MAHTESIAN: Yes. So this measure would allow them to be distributed in electronic form rather than printed in paper form, which with the state Constitution calls for right now. Now that might not seem like a very big deal, but in fact, it would end up saving lots of trees in the end and especially over time because we're talking about tens of millions of pieces of paper that can be saved in each legislative session.

SIMON: North Dakota has something about the school day, right?

MAHTESIAN: Right. That North Dakota measure would put North Dakota in line with a number of other states by mandating that the school year starts after Labor Day. Now you would think that that wouldn't be that controversial of a measure, but it turns out anything having to do with the schools - and especially with the start or end date of schools - turns out to be quite contentious.

SIMON: Do these ballot measures call out big spenders the way elections do?

MAHTESIAN: Well, what we're talking about with these ballot measures is huge amounts of spending - maybe not on the congressional level, but by some estimates, we're talking about over a billion dollars in spending on ballot measures this cycle. The most expensive ballot initiative this year, which deals with a cap on medical malpractice lawsuits in California, that measure has already seen more than $100 million in spending. So we're not talking about nickels and dimes here, we're talking about big spending initiatives.

SIMON: NPR's politics editor Charlie Mahtesian. Thanks so much.

MAHTESIAN: Thanks Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.