by by Marisa Calleja

illustration by by Douglas Poole

Despite an ailing state economy, Rhode Island voters followed an electoral tradition of supporting land conservation and recreational space to pass Bond Question 2 on the November 4 ballot. With a 68 percent majority, voters authorized the Rhode Island state government to borrow $2.5 million to purchase and protect new and existing conservation land, state parks and recreation areas.
"We were expecting this to pass given past support Rhode Islanders have shown for protecting open space and farmland," Gail Mastrati, of the state Department of Environmental Management, told the Independent.

The bond question is a minor victory, with certainly nowhere near the impact of 2004's Open Space, Clean Water bond in which voters passed a $70 million initiative to protect thousands of acres in farmland and undeveloped land. Before Bond Question 2 reached voters, the legislature whittled it down from the $15 million Governor Carcieri had initially proposed to a smaller sum more fitting for a state with looming deficits. Out of the total sum, $2 million will go to protecting farmland and the remaining $500,000 will go toward protecting open space and recreational areas.
"Whatever money we receive will allow us to protect additional farm and recreation land," said Mastrati. "Every bit helps."
After the legislature voted to place the question on the ballot, the state Department of Environmental Management learned that $3.7 million in federal funds for protecting farmland is already assigned to Rhode Island. The catch? The state must provide matching grants, and has spent nearly all of the money left over from the 2004 initiative. In addition to serving its original purpose, the $2.5 million will bring much-needed federal money into the Ocean State.
With a little money and a lot of voter support, Rhode Island is inching toward increased land protection.
In an election year greatly decided by young voters, Connecticut passed a referendum that will further enfranchise and promote the political engagement of America's youth. Last Tuesday, the Connecticut Voting Age Measure, known in Connecticut as Question 2, was approved by an overwhelming 65 percent of voters. Connecticut became the tenth state--after Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia--to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections, provided they turn 18 on or before the general election.
The measure capitalizes on the language of the 26th Amendment, which changed standard voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971, but did not restrict states from further lowering it. The passing of the 26th Amendment was largely attributed to the Vietnam War, when America's youth complained that they were being asked to serve a country in which they could not vote. Today, there are disenfranchised 17-year-olds in Connecticut, and elsewhere in the country, who have enlisted in the military. Proponents of the measure seek to ensure that military participation and political participation are equally inclusive to 17-year-olds.
The relationship between age and civic engagement is a particularly salient topic; last Tuesday, the nation's youngest generation disproved myths of the Apathetic Young Voter and played a key role in the victory of President-Elect Barack Obama. But the Connecticut Voting Age Measure has the potential to transform this one-time occurrence into a political trend. Proponents of Question 2 cited increased voter participation among young people and the necessity of creating life-long voters as the fundamental issues underlying the measure.
"Since voting early in life can make it more likely one will vote through adulthood, anything that might entice younger voters is a good idea," Brown Political Science Professor Ross Cheit told the Independent. Additionally, the passing of Question 2 may cause elected officials to pay extra attention to issues that directly affect young people, such as higher education.
Professor Cheit also noted, "The idea was completely uncontroversial in the Connecticut legislature, where it passed before being put on the ballot." Yet given the number of swing states among the ten--four out of ten--that allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, the true impact of decisions like Question 2 will reveal itself in elections still to come.


Last Tuesday Washington State became the second US State to conditionally legalize physician-assisted suicide. Modeled on Oregon's 1997 Death With Dignity Act, Washington's ballot question I-1000, the Washington Death With Dignity Act, will permit terminally-ill, competent adults, with fewer than six months to live, to self-administer lethal medication prescribed by a physician. In 1991, a similar initiative was placed on Washington's ballot, but controversy over allowing doctors to administer the medications led to its failure. This year's proposal restricted the physician's position to prescribing only; one and a half million people voted to earn a fifty-eight percent majority, the Washington Secretary of State reports.
Launched in January of 2008, the Death With Dignity campaign has been met with resolute support as well as vehement opposition. With Washington Governor Booth Garner as leader, the political action committee It's My Decision asserts on its website that the Yes vote will "improve the care for all dying patients, by increasing awareness among doctors, allowing an open and honest conversation between doctors and patients, improving pain management and palliative care, and providing patients with a sense of control and peace of mind." In a January article in The Oregonian, assisted suicide laws were characterized as ones that "help elevate end-of-life care." In 2006, furthering this belief in the law's ability to provide people with the choice and power to control the conclusion of their own lives, the Supreme Court rejected the Justice Department's efforts to stop physicians from writing life-terminating prescriptions.
On the other hand, organizations such as Not Dead Yet and the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide have stood steadfast with faith-based groups and advocates of the disabled to combat the passing of I-1000. Sister Sharon Park, director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, told the Seattle Times, "We hold that life is a gift from God and it's sacred and we're to hold it as a gift. That certainly would be why we would not be supportive of assisted suicide." The Coalition Against Assisted Suicide agrees, and further believes that I-1000 lacks protection for mentally-ill patients, harms families and jeopardizes health care. Chris Carlson, chairman of the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, said to William Yardley of The New York Times, "You're encouraging people to prematurely give up hope, and I think that's wrong."
The success of I-1000 is controversial throughout Washington State, but for Governor Garner the victory is bittersweet. The Death With Dignity project marks the end of his political career, or, as he calls it, "My Final Campaign." He retires as Parkinson's disease limits his engagement in the political process, thrilled by the triumph of the initiative.