Dina Titus of Nevada

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–On the list of ballot measures that affect women in this year’s midterm elections, South Dakota’s initiative to repeal a statewide ban on virtually all abortions leaps out.

But there are about 200 initiatives on ballots next month–the third-highest number since the first measure was voted on in 1904–and many also directly affect women. They relate to abortion, same-sex marriage, the minimum wage, health care, child care, education and limits on government spending.

An initiative in Massachusetts, for instance, would allow authorized child care workers–most of whom are women–to bargain collectively with state child care agencies, and a California health care initiative has portions dedicated to funding research, prevention and treatment of breast and cervical cancer.

Voters in states such as Rhode Island and Wyoming will consider initiatives to increase funding for higher education. These initiatives would help women attend college and attain training to move into higher paying jobs.

“Across the country we’re seeing these types of issues on local referenda,” said Marcia Cone-Tighe, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, which is holding an event to educate female voters about the state’s referenda on Nov. 6, the day before the midterm elections.

“It’s really imperative that women educate themselves and then go out and vote to make sure they have the type of services addressed for them in the coming years.”

The plethora of ballot measures will drive up turnout among female voters, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He cited a 2004 Pew poll that showed that 44 percent of women said they were motivated to vote by ballot initiatives, compared with 41 percent of men.

Notification Laws in California, Oregon

Of particular interest is a pair of initiatives in California and Oregon that represent the latest efforts of the incrementalist wing of the anti-choice movement, which seeks to chip away at abortion rights rather than push an outright ban, as the South Dakota law would do.

The measures would require physicians to give a pregnant minor’s parents written notice before performing an abortion.

Abortion rights activists are cautiously optimistic they can stave off the laws in California and Oregon, since the two states have turned down similar initiatives before. Last year, California voters rejected a parental notification initiative by 53 percent to 47 percent. In 1990, Oregon voters also defeated a parental notification measure.

Voters have opposed parental notification measures over concerns that the laws might put teens in vulnerable positions, said Kathy Kneer, president of the Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California in Sacramento. A parent, for instance, could become enraged at the discovery of a minor daughter’s pregnancy and batter the young woman.

Both initiatives would allow teens to circumvent the notification requirement by getting a judge’s approval, but Kneer said that is not sufficient protection for teens who are often intimidated by the courts. “In the real world, it won’t work,” she said.

Still, more than 30 states have passed laws requiring parental notification or consent, and anti-choice activists assert that California and Oregon will soon join that list. Such laws, they say, are the kind of modest restrictions favored by the majority of the electorate.

“We are looking forward to victory,” said Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life in Salem, Ore.

Efforts to Raise Minimum Wage

Progressive activists say initiatives in six states–Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio–would help women by raising the minimum wage, because more women than men work in low-wage jobs.

The measures are designed in part to drive up Democratic turnout–especially among women–in the same way that measures banning same-sex marriage were intended to turn out GOP supporters in 2004. That year, political experts attributed President George W. Bush’s re-election victory in part to an anti-gay marriage measure on the ballot in Ohio, which narrowly went to Bush.

“It’s a sort of pilot program that takes a page from the right-wing playbook,” said Oliver Griswold, a spokesperson for the Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center, a group in Washington, D.C., that tracks ballot measures.

Minimum wage initiatives in particular drive up turnout among women, Smith said. That in turn may boost voter support for candidates that back minimum wage increases.

Such initiatives could benefit female candidates such as Dina Titus, a Democrat running against GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons, who hopes to become Nevada’s first female governor.

“I think it will help,” Titus said. “It’s not the top issue, but it’s one of the top issues, and it’s one where there is a real strong contrast between my opponent and me, so it always comes up.”

The minimum wage initiative–as well as a ballot measure that would protect the right of Missouri scientists to conduct the kind of stem-cell research permitted under federal law–could play a decisive role in whether Claire McCaskill becomes Missouri’s next senator. She is running a fiercely competitive race against Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who unlike McCaskill opposes the minimum wage and stem cell ballot measures.

“I do think that on balance, the initiatives will be helpful to McCaskill,” said Harriett Woods, who served as the lieutenant governor of Missouri and directed the National Women’s Political Caucus in Washington, D.C.

Same-Sex Marriage Bans

Religious conservatives, meanwhile, continue to push their opposition to same-sex marriage, with bans in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin on the ballot.

The measures, however, lack the power they enjoyed in 2004, said Jennie Bowser, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, Colo. She noted that there are fewer gay marriage bans on the ballot this year and that polls regarding several marriage bans are inconclusive. Some, she said, appear susceptible to failure, which would be a first.

No initiative, however, is generating the kind of national scrutiny as the effort to repeal the abortion ban in South Dakota.

“South Dakota is truly cataclysmic,” Kneer said.

South Dakota, which has only one clinic that offers abortion services, enacted the nation’s first outright ban on abortion in March. Under the law, all abortions except those threatening a woman’s life would be outlawed. The ban was supposed to take effect in July. But activists gathered enough signatures to put the law on November’s referendum ballot, giving voters the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want it.

A September poll conducted by Zogby International showed that 47 percent of voters opposed the ban and 44 percent backed it. The poll had a 4 percent margin of error, meaning the measure was locked in a statistical tie.

“The polling is much, much tighter than we thought it would be given that South Dakota is not known for being a pro-choice haven,” Griswold said.

He attributed the tight poll results to two phenomena: the ban’s lack of exceptions for pregnancies due to rape and incest and voters’ collective reluctance to see the ban used as the legislative vehicle to challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2006 Midterm Election Races:

The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center:

The Initiative and Referendum Institute: