Votes on immigration, union rights and President Obama's health care law could hold hints of the American public's mindset, four years into an economic downturn and one year from the presidential election.
Tuesday's elections also include governors' races in Mississippi and Kentucky that will point to political prospects for 2012, when an additional 10 governorships will be contested. In both states, the governors' offices are expected to stay in the hands of incumbent parties, perhaps indicating that voters aren't ready to abandon their loyalties.
But regardless of the ballot questions and key political races, most experts agree the most important factor in 2012 remains the stubbornly weak economy.
"If the economy were to turn around in the next year, that's going to matter a lot more than what happens in ballot issues," said political analyst Justin Buchler.
Lawmakers have tried to tie other issues, such as public employees' union rights, to their states' economic struggles.
In battleground Ohio, voters will decide whether to repeal a law severely limiting the collective bargaining rights of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees, and whether to prohibit people from being required to buy health insurance as part of the national health care overhaul.
A vote against the health care law would be mostly symbolic, but Republican opponents of the measure hope to use the vote as part of a legal challenge.
Recent polls suggest voters are leaning toward rejection of the collective bargaining law, but the final tally could be close. If approved, it would permit workers to negotiate on wages but not on pensions or health care benefits. It also bans public-worker strikes, scraps binding arbitration and eliminates annual pay raises for teachers.
The vote will be a referendum on both Republican backers and GOP Gov. John Kasich, who pushed strongly for the legislation. The outcome will also be closely watched by presidential candidates as a gauge of the Ohio electorate, which is seen as a bellwether.
No Republican has won the White House without Ohio, and only two Democrats did so in more than a century.
The governors' races will be closely watched by both parties, since governors can marshal resources and get-out-the-vote efforts crucial to any White House candidate.
In Mississippi, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant appears poised to keep the governor's mansion in GOP hands, succeeding Haley Barbour, who toyed briefly with a run for president. Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree is the first black major-party nominee for governor in Mississippi, but an upset win for him isn't in the cards.
In Kentucky, Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear is waltzing to re-election despite high unemployment, budget shortfalls and an onslaught of third-party attack ads.
Tuesday's election comes just weeks after two other governors' races. Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal won 66 percent of the vote last month in the state's open primary, more than enough to avoid a recount. And in West Virginia, Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin narrowly beat Republican Bill Maloney in a special election.
Political analyst Alan Rosenthal says voters are so polarized today -- with fewer crossing party lines -- that choosing a candidate is a better indication of the public's mood than deciding a ballot question.
Picking sides on a referendum may reinforce party loyalty, but "it's not going to be as clear as when you're voting for a candidate," said Rosenthal, a Rutgers University professor.
Social issues are also on the ballot. In Mississippi, one referendum asks whether the state should define life as beginning at conception. The measure stands a decent chance of becoming the first victory in the country for the so-called personhood movement, which aims to make abortion all but illegal.
Similar attempts have failed in Colorado and are under way elsewhere.
Also in Mississippi, a proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit the government from taking private property by eminent domain and transferring it to other people.
In Arizona, Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the immigration law that thrust the issue into the national political debate, faces a recall that could throw him out of office. The Republican attempting to defeat him has made immigration a constant theme, but Pearce has a 3-to-1 fundraising advantage.
Other votes of note:
-- In Kentucky, comic-turned-politician Robert Farmer upset local residents with some hillbilly jokes, but he could ride name recognition to a new job as agricultural commissioner. In Ohio, politically incorrect comedian Drew Hastings, a "Comedy Central" fixture, is running for mayor of tiny Hillsboro.
-- In Maine, voters will decide whether to repeal a new state law that requires voters to register at least two days before an election. A repeal would effectively restore Election Day voter registration, which had been available for nearly four decades. Maine has two other ballot questions asking residents whether they want to allow casinos in specific communities.
-- New Jersey voters are being asked whether to legalize sports betting in a measure polls indicate will likely pass. But it won't change much since New Jersey is among the vast majority of states subject to a federal ban on sports betting.
-- In Philadelphia, Democratic incumbent Michael Nutter is expected to win easy re-election.
-- In Washington state, voters decide whether to end the state-run liquor system and allow large stores to sell liquor. The effort has been bankrolled by giant retailer Costco, which spent more than $22 million to make it the costliest initiative in Washington history.
-- Oregon, the first state to let residents vote by mail, is pioneering another voting option: casting ballots by iPad. Election workers are taking iPads and printers to the homes of voters with certain disabilities -- poor vision, for example -- ahead of Tuesday to let them vote and print out ballots that are ready to be mailed.
Oregon also holds a special primary to replace Democratic Rep. David Wu, who resigned his seat in August after a newspaper published allegations that he had an unwanted sexual encounter with an 18-year-old woman. Wu was the fourth member of Congress to quit this year in the wake of a sex scandal.
-- In Seattle, even voters in this liberal bastion appear unlikely to support an increase in license plate fees to plug budget gaps.
-- In San Francisco, voters are deciding pension-reform measures designed to save the city money billions of dollars.
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