Five states voted on marijuana legalization ballot measures on Tuesday. And while three conservative states rejected the reform proposals, a comprehensive survey signals that voters in two of those states actually back legalization—even if they did not support the specific initiatives that were before them.
The poll from Fox News and the Associated Press was conducted in the week leading up to Election Day. It involved a massive sample of more than 100,000 registered voters across the country and the results were broken down by state to give more granular insights into where Americans stand on a wide range of issues.
Overall, it found that 63 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat support legalizing cannabis nationwide, which is largely consistent with other nationally representative polls. But some of the most interesting findings come from voters in the states where legalization was on the ballot.
Those states were: Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. Both Maryland and Missouri approved legalization, while the other three defeated the proposals.
Legalization is an increasingly bipartisan issue. But there were a combination of factors that help put the reform defeats into context. Conservative Republicans and older voters are typically the least likely to back legalization and also the most likely to show up at the polls during midterm elections when the presidency isn’t on the ticket.
Also, opponents mounted serious campaigns to persuade people to defeat legalization, while some advocates expressed frustration about a lack of financial contributions from national marijuana companies that have focused much of their resources on federal reform.
But the new poll raises fresh questions about the exact reasons for the three defeats, showing that voters in Arkansas and South Dakota actually do support legalization. That support just didn’t translate into votes.
In Arkansas, the legalization initiative was defeated by a margin of about 56 percent to 44 percent. Yet the poll found basically the inverse, with 55 percent of voters saying they support ending prohibition and 45 percent opposing the reform.
In South Dakota, voters rejected an adult-use legalization measure with roughly 53 percent opposed and 47 percent in support. That’s not the sentiment that poll respondents expressed, however, with the survey showing support at 57 percent and opposition at 43 percent.
The vote and poll results for North Dakota, where legalization was rejected at the ballot, are more consistent. The current ongoing ballot count shows it losing 55 percent to 45 percent, and the survey has 59 percent of respondents opposed to the reform, versus 41 percent who supported it.
Meanwhile, Missouri voters passed a legalization measure, 53 percent to 47 percent. Interestingly, the poll showed support for ending prohibition 10 percentage points higher, at 63 percent compared to 37 percent who said they opposed the policy change.
Finally, Maryland’s legalization vote passed 66-34, and the survey showed support at 57 percent and opposition at 43 percent.
So what accounts for the poll-to-vote disconnects?
There are certainly a number of factors that might be at play, including the fact that the Fox/AP survey was designed to include “the views of all Americans, as voters and non-voters.” But the results also seem to speak to a challenge that several reform campaigns ran up against this cycle: some people who back legalization put specific policy provisions over general ideology.
That is, support for the basic idea of ending prohibition is consistently popular among Americans, but the debate on what legalization should look like has evolved and become more nuanced, which manifested in several campaigns in 2022.
Disagreements about provisions related to licensing, equity, expungements, tax rates and revenue distribution, home grow rights and more may have pushed some of those people who said they back legalization in principle in Arkansas and South Dakota to vote against the individual initiatives.
It was exactly those kinds of policy disputes that led to a fair amount of intramovement advocacy splintering in Missouri as well, which could help explain the sizable gap separating the survey and vote results.
In South Dakota, meanwhile, a majority of voters approved an earlier legalization ballot measure in 2020 that was later overturned in courts. Unlike that initiative, however, the new pared-down proposal that was defeated this week did not contain provisions to legalize and regulate cannabis sales. It’s possible that a sizable number of voters only wanted to end prohibition if it came with a mechanism for people to legally buy marijuana.
In Maryland, the relative consistency between the results might have to do with the simplicity of the legalization referendum that went before voters. It asked: “Do you favor the legalization of the use of cannabis by an individual who is at least 21 years of age on or after July 1st, 2023, in the state of Maryland?”
The Fox/AP poll question, meanwhile, asked respondents whether they favor or oppose “legalizing the recreational use of marijuana nationwide.”
While the end result—several states defeating legalization at the ballot—might not be what many advocates want to see in the short term, there are some who feel that the debates and pushback from certain communities over the details of reform proposals represents a positive evolution. And it’s one that might force activists and stakeholders to take a more thoughtful and inclusive approach to legalization initiatives in the future.
Again, there are other factors that might explain the disconnect, but the poll raises interesting questions about the dynamics that produced mixed results on cannabis reform during this election.
The overall survey involved interviews with nearly 100,000 registered voters from October 31 to November 8, though the marijuana question itself was posed to just under 26,000 respondents. It was designed to address “the limitations of relying exclusively on in-person exit polls” and provide a “comprehensive look at political opinions and voting behavior across the United States.”