UPDATE, November 5, 10:05 a.m.: Washington voters passed comprehensive sex ed, and Colorado voted for paid and family medical leave. Nevada’s Question 2 and 4 were approved, while Utah passed Constitutional Amendment C and Nevada approved Constitutional Amendment 1.
This election cycle, Washington state voters are deciding whether to mandate comprehensive sex education—the model that experts say best supports children’s well-being—in public schools. In other states, ballot measures address voting and constitutional language around slavery and gender.
Washington legislators approved a comprehensive sex education bill (SB 5395) in March, and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law. Normally that would have been the end of it. But the state allows citizens to gather signatures for a veto referendum on a piece of legislation, giving voters final say on whether the law actually goes into effect.
Research shows that comprehensive sexual health education has a variety of benefits, including fewer teen pregnancies, more frequent use of condoms, and, in some studies, higher academic performance.
If voters approve Referendum 90, school districts would have to provide comprehensive sex education tailored to students’ ages. Kindergarteners might have a lesson about unwanted touch, for example, while seventh-graders would learn about birth control and safer sex methods.
Contrary to the popular talking point from opponents, sexual education prevents sexualization of kids by helping them talk about their bodies, said Cora Breuner, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. She added that sexual education goes beyond sex itself and covers topics like hygiene, relationships, and puberty.
The alternative, Breuner said, is that kids will stumble upon information or imagery online while unprepared. This risk is exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as kids and teens are spending more time at home and online.
“Families do not think their child is exposed to sex education by inadvertently watching YouTube or a video—guess again,” Breuner said. “These kids are being exposed to it.”
Jessica Cole, president of PFLAG of Southwest Washington, a support and educational group for LGBTQ people and allies, is familiar with the worries about sex ed. She said she was “terrified” based on what she heard from opponents of comprehensive sex education. But doing her own research and seeing the curriculum herself eventually eased her fears.
The research, in fact, exposed gaps in her own knowledge of sexual health. “Where’s the parent class for this?“ she said.
The bill would also require sex education be inclusive of LGBTQ and disabled students. Breuner said sex ed is especially important for LGBTQ students who might be hesitant to ask questions specific to their gender or sexuality at home. As a sex educator for 15 years, she regularly encounters such students.
“There’s always one who comes up to me [and says], ‘I don’t think I’m the gender I was born as,’” she said. “Or [they] say, ‘I think I’m gay,’ and they’re 11.”
Cole noted that it’s easy for students to check out when information doesn’t appear to include them, even if some of the information being shared still applies.
“It helps the students engage because it’s something the [LGBTQ] students relate to,” she said.
While polling on the referendum is limited, surveys suggest the measure has a strong lead. An early October poll of 591 likely voters showed 52 percent approve of the law, while 34 percent plan to vote now and 14 percent are undecided.
Colorado: Offer paid family and medical leave
Coloradans voters are deciding on Proposition 118, which would establish paid family and medical leave for all workers.
Olga Robac, communications director for Colorado Families First, a committee supporting Proposition 118, said the COVID-19 pandemic only made paid family and medical leave more urgent.
“This global health crisis has really underscored the incredible need for a policy like this,” she said. “When we allow people to recover from their illness, when we allow people to take time off they need when their family are in a medical emergency, we keep communities healthier and safer, we protect the people around us, and you know, we strengthen the bonds between families. Looking through the pandemic lens, I think it just strengthens the reasoning why we need to pass it and why we need to pass it now.”
If the proposition passes, the paid leave program will begin collecting premiums in 2023 and benefits can be taken beginning in 2024. According to Colorado Families First, the delay would provide time for the economy to recover. Roback said opting for a lower benefit—12 weeks with the possibility to extend to 16 weeks for pregnancy or childbirth complication—was designed to reduce costs. Experts often recommend a longer time for parents who have given birth to ensure the health of parent and child.
Still, the leave is longer than what many employers in the United States provide. A PL+US report found that large organizations offered an average of 4.7 weeks of parental leave and 5.6 weeks of childbirth leave.
The Colorado program would also include groups sometimes exempted from employer leave programs, including part-time workers and contractors. It also gives an equal amount of leave to parents regardless of gender or whether they were the parent who gave birth, and it extends the benefit to families adopting or fostering children.
The program would be funded by a payroll deduction split between workers and employers and go to a state enterprise exclusively tasked with administering the program, as opposed to the state’s general fund.
A Colorado Politics/9News poll shows a majority of Colorado adults—57 percent—support the measure, with 21 percent opposed and 22 percent undecided.
Nevada: Repeal ban on same-sex marriage
Nevada’s Question 2 would repeal an unenforceable constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that passed by referendum in 2002. While currently a symbolic measure, it could make a legal difference if conservatives use their newly gained 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court to revisit Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
The measure to put the question on the ballot passed the Nevada Assembly 37-2, and the Nevada Senate 19-2. Three Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure.
Nevada voters are also weighing in on Question 4, which would add the state’s declaration of voters’ rights—something that already exists as state law—to the constitution. The rights include access to a ballot, the right to a sample ballot, and other information, and the right to vote without intimidation, coercion, and discrimination. It passed both houses with no opposition.
Utah: Adjust constitutional language
Utah’s current constitution bans slavery and involuntary servitude—except for people convicted of a crime. Constitutional Amendment C, if approved by Utah voters, would remove that exception. It would not affect current practices in Utah prisons, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The amendment already passed both legislative houses with no opposition.
Twenty-one states allow slavery or involuntary servitude as a criminal punishment, according to Ballotpedia, as does the U.S. Constitution. Another state, Vermont, allows involuntary servitude to pay off debts.
Meanwhile, Utah Constitutional Amendment A would take out gendered language in the constitution, replacing phrases like “all men” with gender-neutral language like “all persons.” It also passed both houses of the state legislature with no opposition.
Nebraska: Remove exception to state constitutional ban on slavery
Just like in Utah, Nebraska voters are being asked to decide if language allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments should be removed from the state constitution. And like the Utah amendment ballot measures, Nebraska Amendment 1 passed both houses of the state legislature with no opposition.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Washington state ballot measure on comprehensive sex education. It is Referendum 90.