Many Key Issues to Be Decided in State-Level Elections
Abortion, religious freedom and marijuana legalization are among the matters voters will consider.
The elections for Congress may be dominating headlines, but a number of issues of critical importance to Catholics — ranging from abortion to school choice — will be decided in state-level elections across the country Nov. 6.
“It’s so important that people engage on the state level because a lot of the national issues are those that grab the news headlines, but what happens on the state level is incredibly important,” said Maureen Ferguson, the senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association.
“More and more issues that affect people’s daily lives are decided at the state level, and so people absolutely should not just look at the every-four-years presidential race as the one opportunity to say something about public issues, but to research candidates and these initiatives and to take seriously the fact that these states are often the place where effective change happens,” added David Cloutier, a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America.
One such national issue that reaches to the state level is abortion. Ferguson said she expects that the current Supreme Court will give states more leeway to protect unborn children and their mothers. In that case, it would be up to state legislatures to pass pro-life legislation, making elections for local state representatives and state senators that much more important.
Three states are also considering three abortion-related ballot measures.
Oregon voters will face a measure that would block state public funding of abortions. And in West Virginia and Alabama, voters have the choice of amending the state constitution to declare that there is no right to an abortion in those states. Alabama would also go further in affirming that unborn children have the right to life.
“From a Catholic perspective, it’s difficult for me to think of any justification for not voting in favor of any kind of restriction on abortion,” Cloutier said.
Two Midwestern states — North Dakota and Michigan — are also considering initiatives that would legalize marijuana. The Catholic conference in both states — which represent bishops on public policy matters — have urged voters to reject the measures.
The Michigan Catholic Conference said its board of directors had decided to oppose the legalization, “citing the harm it may cause for Michigan families, health outcomes, communities and workers.” Likewise, in North Dakota, the state Catholic conference is urging a “No” vote because it is a “threat to health, safety and the common good.”
Religious freedom is also on the line in North Dakota in Measure No. 1, which purports to be about promoting transparency and integrity among those who attempt to influence public policy. But, in reality, the North Dakota Catholic Conference warns that it is a “threat to the mission of churches and charities.”
For example, the law would mandate that churches that voice positions on public-policy issues would have to fully disclose who is funding them. In practice, this would mean releasing the names of diocesan parishioners, according to the conference.
A number of other ballot measures across the country touch on issues of particular concern to Catholics. Massachusetts is weighing a measure to reject a law that protects from discrimination individuals that identify themselves as “transgender”; Oregon is asking voters if they want to repeal its sanctuary-state law that prevents local police from enforcing federal immigration laws; and Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and Utah will choose whether to expand Medicaid in their states.
When evaluating a ballot measure, Cloutier said that Catholics should put the common good ahead of their individual self-interest. “Catholic teaching suggests that at times you should vote against your economic interest in order to achieve something greater for society,” Cloutier said.
For example, he said a wealthy retiree may support a ballot initiative to improve schools even though he will derive no direct personal benefit since he has no children — and he also may personally pay a cost in higher taxes. But voters also need to educate themselves fully on the factual circumstances behind such initiatives, such as whether the school system is already overfunded, Cloutier said.
For U.S. Catholics, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a guide on how to apply Catholic social teachings to U.S. politics and public policy titled, “Faithful Citizenship” (see USCCB.org).
On state-specific issues, respective Catholic conferences publish evaluations of ballot measures that indicate the position of local bishops. The California Catholic Conference, for example, has issued briefs on every single proposition on the ballot this year, including everything from local rent-control laws to work breaks for emergency workers.
Steve Pehanich, the director of communications and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference, suggested that Catholics have more work to do in terms of educating themselves on local politics because neither political party’s positions completely line up with what the Church teaches.
“Catholic teaching puts us in neither camp — neither red nor blue,” Pehanich said. “Catholic voters have a special obligation to understand the issues [and] the candidates.”
Catholic voters also need to consult their consciences on electing candidates to state office. In addition to seeking out candidates who are pro-life, Catholics also need to weigh how much of an impact a potential officeholder would have on abortion, according to Cloutier.
For example, a state attorney general may not be able to influence abortion policies as much as a state legislator who could vote in favor of pro-life protections.
“It never is an indifferent issue, but there is a judgment that has to be made about the effective contribution a particular office will be able to make to the cause,” Cloutier said.
In Illinois, abortion is a factor in the state races, according to Robert Gilligan, the executive director for the state’s Catholic conference. Both candidates for governor are pro-abortion. Moreover, the Democratic candidate, J.B. Pritzker, is a major donor to the local Planned Parenthood political action committee.
The group, in turn, is spending heavily in some races for state representative to oust pro-life elected officials. Among its targets is Peter Breen, who is also an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a Catholic legal organization based in Chicago. The political action committee has dumped $1 million into the race just to defeat Breen, according to Gilligan.
If Pritzker is elected, Gilligan says he expects that Democrats will target a parental-notification law that took effect in 2013. Party leaders may also make another attempt to pass a bill mandating that public schools teach a curriculum that highlights the contributions of the “LGBTQ” community. Gilligan also worries that the new $100-million scholarship tax credits that were created last year could be threatened. (The program enables low- and middle-income students to attend Catholic schools using funding that businesses donate in return for a tax credit.)
Pro-Life Women Candidates
The elections will also be a referendum of sorts on the values of the nation.
In the wake of the hearings on the now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, media commentators have been predicting a “blue wave” of female voters in favor of Democrats.
But pro-life advocates dispute the claim women are tilting overwhelmingly toward the Democrats, noting that there are seven candidates the Susan B. Anthony List, a women’s pro-life group, has endorsed at the state level. All but one are women. They include incumbent governors Kay Ivey of Alabama and Kim Reynolds of Iowa, gubernatorial candidate Kristi Noem in North Dakota, and incumbent Attorney General Leslie Rutledge in Arkansas.
“It’s a false narrative because there are plenty of women who are motivated to run for very different reasons and are very successful candidates,” Ferguson said. “And so it’s just that the media narrative is a little off. They just focus on the Democratic women who are pro-abortion.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.