With all the attention being lavished on an election that's still more than a year away, it's easy to forget that voters around the country will be heading to the polls this Tuesday. Here are three races to keep your eyes on.
Houston's anti-discrimination ordinance (aka the "bathroom bill")
What: Proposition 1, a referendum on the anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the Houston City Council in May 2014.
Endorsed by: Mayor Annise Parker, the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU of Texas, the NAACP of Houston, the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a number of local businesses.
Opposed by: A group of Houston-area pastors, the U.S. Pastor Council and Mike Huckabee.
Why it matters: Until last year, Houston was the only city in Texas – and the only major city in the country – that lacked an equal rights ordinance. Even Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, wasn't aware of that fact until two years ago (more than a decade and a half into her career as a public official).
In May of last year, Parker introduced a measure known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, to the Houston City Council that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information and pregnancy status. The city council approved it, 11 to 6.
A group of local pastors seized on one aspect of the ordinance — language ultimately stricken from the legislation — that would allow Houstonians to use the bathroom that best suits the gender they identify with. (As such, many people have come to refer to the legislation as Houston's "bathroom bill.") Arguing the bill would give sexual predators unfettered access to women's bathrooms, the group of pastors petitioned the city to put the measure to a public vote.
A skirmish ensued when the pastors failed to meet the minimum requirements for such a vote, and the city, in turn, refused to add the referendum to the ballot. The pastors sued the city, and during the resulting lawsuit, were ordered to turn over all communication they had on the bill, including any sermons they'd given. That's when things went haywire. "They called in national FOX News," Parker tells Rolling Stone. "Implied was that we had subpoenaed sermons from every pastor in the city of Houston on everything they had ever said about homosexuality, which was just bunk."
The move by the city's attorneys gave the pastors the opening they needed to argue a relatively standard and innocuous piece of legislation designed to protect all Houstonians from discrimination was actually infringing on their right to free speech. "I will give full credit to the pastors and the anti-gay organizers here in Houston: They played it masterfully," Parker says.
Legal weed in Ohio
What: Issue 3, a ballot measure that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state, but would limit the number of farms allowed to grow and sell the plant to just ten.
Endorsed by: 98 Degrees singer Nick Lachey, ex-NBA player Oscar Robertson, ex-NFL player Frostee Rucker, fashion designer Nanette Lepore, two descendants of President William Howard Taft and a handful of real estate developers and businessmen who are also bankrolling the initiative.
Opposed by: Gov. John Kasich, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Libertarian Party of Ohio, the Green Party of Ohio and every editorial board that has taken a stand on the issue.
Why it matters: Issue 3 would finally accomplish a goal legalization activists in Ohio have been working toward for years, but the ballot measure would also create an oligopoly that would enrich a handful of prominent Ohioans and shut out anyone else from the emerging weed business.
The ballot measure provides for the creation of a maximum of ten pot farms on specific parcels of land already owned by the proposal's financial backers. Only those farms would be allowed to stock the shelves of the 1,100 dispensaries allowed by the amendment.
Proponents like former boy bander Nick Lachey argue the measure would bring jobs and tax revenue to the state. "Passage of this proposal will result in much-needed economic development opportunities across Ohio, and update the state's position on marijuana in a smart and safe way," Lachey said in a statement.
Gov. Kasich, for his part, says Ohio doesn't need the extra money; he says the state is currently operating with a $2 billion surplus. His distate for the measure puts the anti-drug crusader on the same side as legalization advocates at the Drug Policy Alliance, who have refused to endorse the bill because of their reservations about the oligopoly provision.
Other legalization groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws have mustered only lukewarm endorsements. The Ohio Rights Group, once Issue 3's most outspoken opponent, narrowly voted to support the bill on the grounds that it would provide legal access to longsuffering medical marijuana patients.
San Francisco's Airbnb ballot measure
What: Proposition F, a ballot measure that would restrict short-term rentals in the city to 75 nights per year or fewer.
Endorsed by: The hotel and restaurant workers' union UNITE HERE, the San Francisco Tenants Union, Sen. Diane Feinstein, State Sen. Mark Leno, three planning commissioners and five city supervisors.
Opposed by: Airbnb, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic and Republican parties of San Francisco and five city supervisors.
Why it matters: San Francisco is in the grip of a critical housing shortage. The vacancy rate is among the worst in the country, and this past summer the average monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment approached $3,000. "We're suffering through the worst housing crisis this city has faced since the 1906 earthquake. We can't build housing fast enough to accommodate the new folks who are moving in here," Dale Carlson, a spokesperson for ShareBetterSF, the group that put the measure on the ballot, tells Rolling Stone.
A big part of the problem, according to ShareBetterSF, which receives the majority of its funding from the hotel and restaurant workers' union, are short-term rentals listed on sites like Airbnb, VRBO, Home Away and Flipkey. The coalition wants to see limits placed on the number of days a property could be rented as a vacation rental. Under the proposal, hosts would also have to register with the city and file quarterly reports detailing the number of nights they stayed in their home and how many nights they rented it to guests. It would also give housing rights groups legal standing to sue platforms.
In its own defense, Airbnb argues that not only is the service an important source of income for its users, but a big tax-revenue generator for the city. Airbnb has said (in an inartful advertising campaign the company was forced to take down early) that it makes some $12 million a year in taxes for the city. But Airbnb spent years attempting to avoid paying that tax, and a month out from the election, the company had already spent nearly three-quarters of that amount ($8.5 million) on its campaign to defeat Proposition F.
The hotel and restaurant workers' union would also argue that the taxes Airbnb pays are dwarfed by the tax revenue generated by San Francisco hotels ($273.9 million in the last fiscal year).
This fight is also playing out in cities across the United States. Santa Monica banned short-term rentals without the owner present this past May, and Los Angeles' city council is considering a similar proposal. New York already has a law banning residents from renting their homes out for fewer than 30 days if they are not present, and just last week the city council considered increasing the penalties for violating the law.