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10 science issues at stake in the 2016 election

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Climate, energy, and health are all on the ballot

earth

President Obama warned that democracy is on the ballot this year, but there’s even more at stake — Americans could also be voting to protect the future of our entire planet. Climate change is the biggest story in science policy, and this year we’re faced with a stark choice. On one hand, in Hillary Clinton, we have someone who considers climate change an “urgent threat” and wants to invest in clean energy.

And then there’s Donald Trump, who called climate change a “hoax” and said that he would “cancel” the Paris climate accord. Trump also said he would eliminate the Department of Environmental, which in fact doesn’t exist. (We do have the Environmental Protection Agency, however, and its job is to protect the environment.) So tomorrow, we will be deciding whether to protect our planet or to elect someone who doesn't even believe in the basic science of climate change.

But when Americans go to the polls, they’ll also decide on a bunch of measures that will impact health, energy, and the environment for many years to come. In fact, there will be 154 ballot measures across more than 30 states in this November election, affecting over 200 million residents, according to Ballotpedia.

The issues at stake range from legalizing recreational and medical marijuana to taxing sugary drinks to instituting the first-ever state carbon tax. Here’s a roundup of some of the biggest questions in science that voters will face at the ballot on Tuesday.

Marijuana

Marijuana legalization

Five states are voting on whether to legalize recreational weed: California, Arizona, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts. Four more — Montana, Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota — will decide whether to legalize medicinal marijuana. By far the highest-stakes vote will be in California, the state with the largest economy in the US. If the Golden State decides to legalize weed (and that seems likely), the national industry would triple in size. If these measures pass, they would affect everything from marijuana as a source of state income to public policy surrounding stoned driving. They would also put a lot more pressure on the federal government to lift its ban of the drug.

Soda tax

The controversial tax on sugary drinks will be on the ballot for over 800,000 voters in Boulder, Colorado, and three cities in California (San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany). The measures will tax soda 1 or 2 cents per ounce, including some juices and sports drinks. The tax is supported by public health officials and the World Health Organization as a way to stem consumption of sugary drinks, which are linked to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. With soft drinks consumption at a 30-year low in the US, the big soda industry, like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, have poured millions into fighting the measures. Mexico, which introduced a soda tax in 2014, is expected to see a big drop in type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and even death, according to a recent study.

Plastic bag ban

In 2014, California enacted the first-ever statewide ban on plastic single-use shopping bags, prohibiting most stores from handing out the non biodegradable bags for free. Under the law, stores could charge 10 cents for each paper bag or reusable composite bag given to customers. The idea, lauded by environmentalists, was to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, thus reducing the amount of plastic litter clogging streets and waterways.

But last year, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group that advocates for the plastic bag industry, gathered up enough signatures to stop the ban from going into effect. Now, two measures on the California ballot — Prop. 65 and 67 — will decide the fate of the plastic bag ban. With Prop. 67, Californians can vote “yes” to keep the ban in place or “no” to get rid of it. With Prop. 65, they will decide whether the 10-cent fees collected by stores will be used in a new state fund to support environmental programs. Critics argue that Prop. 65 was included to confuse voters: it seems that passing the measure will help environmental causes, but because it’s sponsored by the APBA it’s viewed as a maneuver to punish stores for supporting the ban.

Carbon tax

In Washington state, a proposed measure called Initiative 732 would tax emissions generated by fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal. The tax would be at $15 per metric ton in 2017, $25 a ton in 2018, and then keep rising gradually in the years to come. The revenue would be used to reduce the state sales tax, cut other taxes, and provide tax rebates to low-income families. Though I-732 could be one of the most ambitious environmental measures in the US, it’s been criticized by some environmental groups that want that revenue to go to clean energy, public transit, and other projects. A recent poll shows that the initiative is favored by 42 percent of voters and opposed by 37 percent, while 21 percent are undecided. If the measure passes, it’ll be the first-ever state carbon tax in the country.

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Elon Musk introduces new home solar panel design.

Solar energy

In Florida, a controversial measure would give state residents the right to own solar equipment to generate their own electricity, while assuring that residents who don’t won’t have to subsidize it. The proposed constitutional amendment has been advertised by its supporters — including electric utility companies — as a pro-solar measure. But opponents, including Al Gore and many environmental groups, say Amendment 1 will actually be used to bar residents from selling some of the electricity generated by the panels back to the utilities. That technique, known as net metering, has helped reduced the cost of solar panels. Last month, a Miami Herald investigation revealed the law is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that will restrict the expansion of solar. Some residents who voted early in favor of the measure say they’ve been deceived into thinking they were voting for renewable energy. The amendment needs 60 percent of the vote to be enacted.

Assisted suicide

Right now, a doctor who helps a terminally ill patient end her life could be charged with a crime in Colorado. That could change if voters approve Prop. 106, which makes assisted suicide legal under specific circumstances. Patients must be at least 18, have less than six months to live, be judged competent enough to make their own choice, and must voluntarily ask for the medication that would kill them. Supporters of the “right-to-die” or “death with dignity” measure say patients should be allowed to control their lives until the very end, including relieving physical suffering. Opponents argue that helping take a life in any situation is ethically wrong, often on religious grounds, and could lead to people becoming too quick to use the option. Similar measures have already been passed in Washington, Oregon, California, Vermont, and Montana.

Condoms

A controversial ballot measure in California called Proposition 60 would hold pornography producers financially and legally responsible for making sure that performers are vaccinated, tested for sexually transmitted infections, and are using condoms.

California’s division of occupational safety and health, or Cal/OSHA, already requires condoms to be used on porn shoots. Prop. 60 would essentially allow any porn-viewer in the state to register a complaint if they suspect condoms weren’t used in a film. If Cal/OSHA then takes too long to respond to the complaint, or decides not to act, then the porn-viewer can file a civil suit against anyone producing or otherwise profiting from selling the film. Supporters say the measure will ensure a safe workplace for porn stars. But opponents worry the measure could actually make performers who produce their own work the targets of expensive lawsuits that could violate their privacy.

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Leatherback turtles, like the one pictured here, visit coastal waters on the West Coast.
Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Endangered species

A measure in Oregon would ban the sale of products and parts of 12 endangered animals, including elephants, rhinos, lions, pangolins, and sea turtles. The initiative to ban wildlife tracking echoes a measure passed in Washington state in 2015 with 70 percent of the vote. There would be exceptions for the sale and possession of antiquities, donations for scientific purposes, and the use of these products by Native Americans.

Drug prices

Hot on the heels of the outrageous 500 percent EpiPen price increase, Californians will be voting on a measure that hopes to limit how much state agencies can pay for prescription drugs. If passed, Prop. 61 would not let the state pay any more for prescription drugs than the Department of Veterans Affairs. (The VA itself pays very little because it gets a 24 percent discount due to federal law.) The measure has been supported by various health care groups and also Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Its opponents are mostly pharmaceutical companies, and people who say that the measure wouldn’t actually save money for California because pharma companies could just raise prices for the VA, too.

Tobacco taxes

Four states — California, Colorado, Missouri, and North Dakota — are voting on whether to increase taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, like electronic cigarettes. The range would go from 23 cents to $2 per pack of cigarettes. Such taxes, which are generally supported by health groups and opposed by the tobacco industry, have been shown to discourage smoking, particularly among young people. Revenues would be used to fund all sorts of things, including tobacco prevention, health care services, and medical research.

In Missouri, the issue is a bit complicated. The state, which has the lowest tax at 17 cents for a pack of cigs, is voting on two tax increases, and it’s not clear which one would be enacted if both pass. One of the measures, called Amendment 3, would raise the tax by 60 cents in phases through 2020. The big tobacco company R.J. Reynolds has donated $12 million to support the amendment; that’s because Amendment 3 would also create an additional tax increase for small tobacco companies that don’t pay a special fee reserved for big tobacco. So little tobacco is supporting the other measure, called Proposition A, which would impose a 23 cent tax on all tobacco brands by 2021. The result of this big, confusing mess? Some health organizations are telling voters to turn down both measures.