Massachusetts backs transgender rights; Michigan OKs marijuana use

David Crary Ap National Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

NEW YORK — In the first statewide referendum on transgender rights, Massachusetts voters on Tuesday beat back a repeal attempt and reaffirmed a 2016 law extending nondiscrimination protections to transgender people, including their use of public bathrooms and locker rooms.

Voters in 37 states considered an array of intriguing ballot measures Tuesday.

Michigan voters made their state the first in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana by passing a ballot measure that will allow people 21 or older to buy and use the drug. A similar measure was defeated in North Dakota, meaning there are now 10 states that allow recreational use of pot. Missouri became the 31st state to approve the medical use of marijuana, while Utah was considering that step.

"Western and northeastern states have led the way on legalizing marijuana, but the victory in Michigan powerfully demonstrates the national reach of this movement," said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who questioned how long the federal government could resist the legalization wave.

The outcome in Massachusetts was a huge relief to LGBT-rights activists, who feared that a vote to repeal the 2016 law would prompt a wave of similar efforts to roll back protections in other states. Already, some protections at the federal level are under threat from President Donald Trump's administration.

"When transgender rights are being threatened nationally, we absolutely must preserve the rights we have secured at the state level," said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Civil-rights activists also scored a major victory in Florida, where voters approved a ballot measure that will enable more than 1 million ex-felons to regain their voting rights. That could alter the future election landscape in the nation's most populous swing state.

Floridians also approved a measure aimed at phasing out greyhound racing in the state, the last stronghold of the sport in the U.S.

In all, 155 statewide initiatives were on the ballot across the country. Most were drafted by state legislatures, but 64 resulted from citizen-initiated campaigns, including many of the most eye-catching proposals.

A minimum wage increase was approved in two states. An Arkansas measure will raise the wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 by 2021; Missouri's will gradually raise the $7.85 minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Proposals to change the redistricting process so it's potentially less partisan were approved in Missouri, Colorado and Michigan. A similar proposal was on the ballot in Utah.

Medicaid expansion was another multistate topic, on the ballot because Republicanled legislatures refused to take advantage of expanded coverage offered under President Barack Obama's health care law. Nebraska and Idaho voters approved measures to expand Medicaid health coverage to tens of thousands of low-income residents; a similar measure was on the ballot in Utah, while a Montana measure would raise tobacco taxes to extend an existing expansion.

A number of initiatives dealt with criminal justice or victims' rights.

In Ohio, voters defeated an ambitious proposal to make drug possession a misdemeanor in an effort to reduce the state prison population and divert any savings to drug treatment.

With the vote in Florida, most felons will automatically have their voting rights restored when they complete their sentences or go on probation. The amendment exempts those convicted of sex offenses and murder.

Supporters said the state's current system was too onerous. It required felons to wait at least five years after completing their sentence before they could file a request with the governor and Cabinet. About 1.5 million people are affected. Nearly all states allow felons to vote after completing their sentences.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Florida affiliate, said the result would remove "an ugly stain" from the state constitution.

"For too long, Florida has been an extreme outlier — our state's lifetime voting ban was the single most powerful voter suppression tactic in the country," he said.

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