Pandemic policies were being put to the test Tuesday in several states where ballot measures sought to rebuke or affirm actions taken by officials trying to fight COVID-19.
The virus-related measures were among two dozen ballot proposals in six states that also include new constitutional rights for residents to grow their own food or enjoy clean air and water.
In Texas, one constitutional amendment would prohibit governments from limiting religious services. It’s a backlash to public health orders in some large cities and counties that restricted the number of people who could gather indoors at the onset of the pandemic.
Another Texas amendment would create a constitutional right for residents in nursing homes and other group-living facilities to designate an “essential caregiver,” who could continue to visit even if the general public is barred from the facility. The amendment would add heft to a similar law enacted earlier this year in Texas.
Like his counterparts elsewhere, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott barred nursing homes from admitting visitors as COVID-19 cases surged in facilities last year. The precaution, which lasted for months, was intended to save lives. It also left elderly residents unable to connect with family and friends.
“Besides the tragedy of very sick people and death, the saddest story that we heard from our constituents was the fact that they could not see their mother, their father, their grandfather, their grandmother, their aunt, uncle, brother or sister in the nursing homes,” said Texas state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican who sponsored the amendment. “It was just something that really just tore at our hearts”
In another pandemic-related issue, Colorado voters were deciding on a constitutional amendment requiring legislative approval for the state to spend money received from outside sources, such as the federal government or legal settlements. A conservative group sponsored the initiative after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis used his executive powers to distribute nearly $1.7 billion of federal COVID-19 relief funds in May 2020.
In New York, voters were deciding whether to make a pandemic voting policy permanent. The state constitution limits absentee voting to those who are ill, physically disabled or out of town on Election Day. But last year, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a temporary law allowing anyone to vote absentee rather than risk exposure to the coronavirus at polling sites. Nearly 2 million people cast absentee ballots in the November 2020 election— more than 20% of New York’s total votes.
The amendment would delete the constitutional limitations on absentee voting, bringing New York in line with two-thirds of states that already allow no-excuse absentee voting or automatically send mail-in ballots to voters.
Another New York amendment would repeal a constitutional requirement that voters register at least 10 days before an election. That would allow the Legislature to authorize registration on the same day as voting, which already is legal in 20 states.
“New York’s constitution has barriers that have prevented the state from bringing its elections up to date,” said Patrick Berry, a Democracy Program counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. The ballot measures provide an “opportunity to break down those barriers,” he said.
A separate constitutional amendment could immediately affect New York’s process for redrawing voting districts for the U.S. House and state legislative chambers based on 2020 census data. A commission charged with recommending maps has splintered along partisan lines this fall. The ballot measure, among other things, would make it easier for the Democratic-led Legislature to pass new maps.
Voters in Maine were deciding on a first-of-its kind measure declaring that individuals have an “unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing.” A state lawmaker who proposed the measure said it’s a response to corporate ownership of the food supply and intended to ensure people can do things such as save and exchange seeds for their gardens. Opponents worried people might try to raise cattle in cities.
A New York measure would create a right to “clean air and water” and “a healthful environment.” It marks a resurgence of an environmental movement dating to 1970, when Illinois adopted the first constitutional duty to maintain “a healthful environment.” A Pennsylvania amendment approved the next year provided a specific right to “clean air” and “pure water.” Other states with environmental rights in their constitutions include Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana and Rhode Island.
In other issues, Colorado voters were weighing whether to raise the sales tax on marijuana to fund out-of-school programs, such as tutoring, technical skill training, mental health counseling and enrichment programs in the arts.
New Jersey voters were deciding whether to expand sports betting — which already is generally legal — to include college games that take place in the state or involve New Jersey colleges.
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