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12 of the Weirdest Ballot Initiatives in American History

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It’s Election Day, where democracy gets a workout and where non-felons can exercise their free will to decide who gets to sit in comfortable appointed chairs. It’s also a time when voters are faced with occasionally ridiculous decisions courtesy of ballot initiatives, where private citizens who have collected enough signatures can offer up proposals for immediate resolution. Here are some of the strangest questions that have been put to voters.

1. SHOULD WE PROHIBIT TOXIC WASTE IN OUR DRINKING WATER?

“As usual, California voters are being presented with many citizen initiatives…Still another would forbid toxic-waste discharge into drinking water. It is being opposed by the industry, which claims the definition of ‘toxic’ is too broad.”

-- Park City Daily News, October 23, 1986 (Approved)

2. SHOULD A POLICE OFFICER GET TO WALK HIS BEAT WITH A VENTRILOQUIST'S DUMMY?

“Along with school vouchers, sales taxes and city charter revisions, voters in San Francisco will decide next Tuesday whether to allow a veteran police officer to walk his beat with a ventriloquist's dummy….Brendan O'Smarty, he of the laughing Irish eyes, whom Officer Geary picked out of a ventriloquist's catalogue after he was selected to work in a community policing program that encouraged officers to use 'creative and ingenious methods' to break down barriers between citizens and police. The hand-carved dummy cost $1,750 because Officer Geary wouldn't hear of the $700 molded particle board version.” (via @ClaraJeffery)

-- The New York Times, October 30, 1993  (Approved)

3. SHOULD WE GIVE $1 MILLION TO ONE RANDOM VOTER?

“A proposal to award $1 million in every general election to one lucky resident, chosen by lottery, simply for voting — no matter for whom — has qualified for the November ballot. Mark Osterloh, a political gadfly who is behind the initiative, the Arizona Voter Reward Act, is promoting it with the slogan, ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Vote!’"

-- The New York Times, July 17, 2006 (Defeated)

4. SHOULD WE TAKE OVER THE GRAND CANYON?

“When voters in Arizona go to the polls next month, they will be asked to decide a land ownership tug of war: Should the Grand Canyon belong to all Americans, or just the residents of Arizona?... A controversial ballot measure backed by Republicans in the state legislature is seeking sovereign control over millions of acres of federal land in the state, including the Grand Canyon.”

-- Reuters, October 23, 2012 (Defeated)

5. SHOULD DENVER SET UP A COMMISSION TO TRACK ALIENS?

“…an eccentric proposal was also rejected in the polls when voters in Denver opted against an initiative to track aliens from outer space. The proposal, known as initiative 300, would have involved setting up a commission to monitor aliens and a website to allow members of the public to report UFO sightings.”

-- The Guardian, November 3, 2010

6. SHOULD WE LET ROXIE THE MINIATURE PIG STAY?

“Roxie the potbellied pig will be moving to a new home now that Piqua voters have said she has worn out her welcome. Cynthia and Tim Gaston and their two children, who own the petite porker, said Wednesday they'll move rather than give Roxie up. On Tuesday, residents of the city of 20,600 people, about 30 miles northwest of Dayton in western Ohio, rejected a ballot proposal that would have allowed residents to keep miniature pigs as pets. The vote was 2,682 to 1,957.”

-- Dayton Daily News, November 4, 1993

7. SHOULD WE BAN SITTING ON THE SIDEWALK?

“Berkeley, among the most generous cities in the country in funding homeless services, is considering a daytime ban on sitting on the sidewalk in all commercial areas….The city currently prohibits lying on the sidewalk, but police and city officials said the law is ineffective because people sit up when officers walk by, then lie down again.”

-- San Francisco Chronicle, April 23, 2013 (Defeated)

8. SHOULD WE JUST START OUR OWN STATE?

“At Nan’s convenience store here in eastern Colorado, where the front door tells visitors that ‘Gun Control Is Hitting Your Target,’ the farmers, crop sprayers, mechanics and retirees who gather for morning coffee say they have had enough of the state and its Democratic leaders. They bristle at gun control laws and marijuana shops, green energy policies and steps to embrace gay marriage and illegal immigrants….So in November, this rural county and 10 others will hold a quixotic vote on whether to secede from Colorado and work to form their own state."

-- The New York Times, October 7, 2013 (Defeated)

9. SHOULD WE STOP SELLING THE EUROPEANS OUR HORSE MEAT?

“There’s also Proposition 6, prohibiting the sale of horse meat for human consumption. Each year, an estimated 10,000 California horses end up as gourmet steaks on the tables of France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Japan.”

-- Lodi News-Sentinel, November 3, 1998 (Approved)

10. SHOULD WE BAN AIRBOATS AT NIGHT (OR IS THAT A HATE LAW)?

“For more than a decade, a dispute has simmered over airboat noise on Orange Lake, Newnan’s Lake and other water bodies in Alachua County. The battle revved up in 2009 and will go full throttle on Election Day as voters decide on a proposed nighttime airboat curfew banning the boats on all water bodies in the county from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m…The current advertising campaign includes a recent television spot comparing the curfew ordinance to a 'hate' law promoting discrimination."

-- The Gainesville Sun, October 18, 2010 (Approved)

11. SHOULD WE BUILD A NEW HOUSE FOR THE PREGNANT ELEPHANT?

“In Cincinnati, zoo officials have threatened to ship off its four Asian elephants, one of them pregnant, if voters reject a $52 million tax levy for a new Elephant House and parking lot.”

-- The Associated Press, November 1, 1997 (Defeated)

12. SHOULD WE EXIST?

“Voters in tiny Castlewood, Virginia, meanwhile, will decide whether to vote the town – and the attendant town taxes – out of existence.”

-- The Associated Press, November 1, 1997 (Approved—the town effectively abolished itself and was absorbed into Russell County.)

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6 Times Multiple Leaders Reigned in a Single Year
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The longest presidential inauguration speech in U.S. history was given by William Henry Harrison when he took over from Martin Van Buren on March 4, 1841. Lasting a full hour and 45 minutes, the almost 8500-word speech was delivered amid a blinding snowstorm without a coat or hat to keep out the cold. Harrison's doctors blamed pneumonia caught that day for the president's death 31 days after taking office, though modern medical experts think the culprit was more likely enteric fever.

Whatever its cause, Harrison’s untimely death caused a brief political crisis, since it seemed unclear whether the president’s successor, Vice President John Tyler, should remain in power for Harrison’s full term or operate as acting president until a new election could be held. In the end, Tyler remained in office for the rest of Harrison’s term, becoming the United States’ third president in a single year. A similar situation emerged 40 years later, when James A. Garfield replaced Rutherford B. Hayes in March 1881 only to be replaced, after his death the following September, by Vice President Chester A. Arthur.

As tumultuous as these years were, they certainly aren’t the only in history to have seen an unusually quick turnaround in the highest offices in the land.

1. ANCIENT ROME, 69 C.E.

Shortly after Nero committed suicide in 68 C.E., the Roman Empire was thrown into a rocky 12 months known as The Year of the Four Emperors. Initially Nero was succeeded by the Roman governor Galba, but Galba soon proved just as unpredictable and as unpopular as his predecessor. As his reign became increasingly tyrannical (he had a habit of executing any senator he distrusted), he adopted a successor, slighting his longstanding supporter Otho, who subsequently arranged to have Galba and the successor assassinated on January 15, 69. Otho was crowned the same day, but Galba’s seven-month rule had caused such unrest across the empire that the northern province of Germania had already turned its back on Rome and appointed its own ruler, Aulus Vitellius—who now had his sights set firmly on the Roman throne.

In April, Vitellius marched his armies south, defeated Otho in battle, and swept to power. In celebration, he supposedly began spending so lavishly on parades and banquets in honor of himself that his entertainment bill alone almost bankrupted the state. But when his actions were questioned, he is said to have had his advisors, moneylenders, and debt collectors tortured and executed.

Once again, unrest spread throughout the empire, and in frustration many of the eastern provinces proclaimed Vespasian, one of Rome’s most successful generals, their new emperor. In December, an alliance of forces loyal to Vespasian met Vitellius’s dwindling supporters in battle at Cremona and ensured Vespasian’s successful march on Rome. After a short time on the run (with two of his chefs alongside him), Vitellius was caught, killed, and his body dumped in the Tiber. Vespasian took to the throne as the year came to an end, and quickly set about restoring some much-needed stability.

2. ENGLAND, 1016

Ethelred the Unready
Ethelred the Unready
Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

When the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready died on April 23, 1016, his 26-year-old son Edmund Ironside was elected to succeed him. He immediately faced the same struggle that had dogged his father’s final years: In the north of England, vast swathes of territory were being invaded and claimed by the Danish king Cnut the Great.

In the months that followed, Edmund’s armies clashed repeatedly with the Danes in a series of bloody but inconclusive battles, until finally a truce was agreed upon. England was to be divided between the two kings, with Edmund keeping the vast Saxon heartland of Wessex and Cnut ruling over the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia in the north and east. Just weeks later, however, Edmund too died suddenly and Cnut ascended to the throne unopposed as England’s third king in just eight months. Historians today are divided over whether foul play was responsible for Edmund’s death, and while some sources claim he succumbed to infected wounds inflicted in battle, at least one much more vivid account claims he was stabbed up the backside, while sitting on a latrine, by an assassin hiding in a cesspit.

3. FRANCE, 1316

 Louis X of France
Louis X
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When Louis X of France died on June 5, 1316 (either of pleurisy or from drinking poisoned wine, depending on which version you believe), a problem emerged over who should succeed him. Although Louis had a daughter, Joan, from his disastrous first marriage, a male heir was required—but Louis’s second wife, Queen Clementia of Hungary, was still pregnant at the time of the king’s death, and with the sex of the child unknown, it was impossible to tell whether Louis had a male successor or not.

As a result, Louis’s younger brother Philip was appointed regent for the final five months of the queen’s pregnancy, until finally, on November 15, 1316, she gave birth to a baby boy. The child was immediately crowned King John I, but died just five days later. The cause of his death is a mystery, and rumors soon emerged that the young king had likely been killed or exiled. But whatever the truth, Louis’s brother Philip was able to retake to the throne in his own right as King Philip V, becoming France’s third king in just six months.

4. THE VATICAN, 1590

Pope Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V
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After the death of Pope Sixtus V on August 27, 1590, Urban VII was elected to succeed him a little over two weeks later, on September 15. But by September 27, Urban VII, too, was dead. His 13-day papacy remains the shortest in history, but despite its brevity he is nevertheless credited with introducing one of the world’s first smoking bans, threatening anyone who “took tobacco in the porchway of or inside of a church” with immediate excommunication. After Urban’s death, Gregory XIV became pope—the third in just 100 days—on December 5, but he fared little better and died of a “gallstone attack” the following October.

5. RUSSIA, 1605

When Tsar Feodor I died without a male heir to succeed him in 1598, the Russian parliament elected his brother-in-law and former advisor, Boris Godunov, as his successor. Although the first few years of Boris’s reign were prosperous, his rule later became a disaster: Russia was devastated by a widespread famine that killed a third of the population, and Boris’s ever-weakening leadership saw the country soon descend into anarchy. On his death in April 1605, Boris’s 16-year-old son succeeded him as Tsar Feodor II, but his reign only lasted a few weeks as both he and his mother were assassinated. And that paved the way for a successor few people saw coming.

A few years earlier, in 1601, a young man living in Moscow had attracted considerable attention by asserting that he was Tsarevich Dmitri Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. Tsarevich Dmitri, it was believed, had either been killed or had died in a terrible accident at the age of just 8 in 1591. This Muscovite Dmitri, however, claimed that the stories of his death had been greatly exaggerated: He had supposedly managed to escape and flee into exile, and with Russia on the verge of anarchy, he had now returned to take his rightful place as tsar.

Threatened with banishment for his treasonable actions, Dmitri fled to Lithuania, but there began forging support for his cause. With the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Catholic groups, and an army of mercenaries from across continental Europe now behind him, Dmitri marched on Moscow and swept to power on Feodor’s death to become Russia’s third tsar in as many months.

But even “False” Dmitri, as he became known, wasn’t to hold the throne for too long. A little under a year later, the Kremlin was stormed and Dmitri was killed by his opponents, having broken his leg fleeing from an upstairs window. (According to popular legend, as one final gesture, his body was cremated and his ashes fired from a cannon pointed in the direction of Poland.)

Dmitri was succeeded by Prince Vasili Shuisky (one of the opponents who had plotted his downfall), who became Tsar Vasili IV on May 19, 1606. His reign wasn’t exactly lacking in drama either—two more “False Dmitris” emerged over the coming years—leading to this entire shambolic period of Russian history becoming known as “The Time of Troubles.”

6. GREAT BRITAIN, 1782

Lord North
Lord North
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It's generally agreed that on March 20, 1782, Lord North became the first Prime Minister in British history to resign, following a vote of no confidence. His 12-year term had seen him lead Britain through much of the American Revolutionary War, but the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781 had damaged his standing beyond repair and he was forced from power. His successor, the Marquess of Rockingham, was appointed a week later and quickly sought to negotiate a peaceful end to the war and to recognize America’s independence. Negotiations began in Paris in April—but were halted when Rockingham died suddenly during a flu epidemic after just 14 weeks in power.

In his place, King George III himself appointed Rockingham’s Secretary of State, William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, as Britain’s third Prime Minister in just five months.

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4 Ways You Can Register to Vote in Less Than 5 Minutes
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Not registered to vote? Time is running out. On Tuesday, November 8, the U.S. will elect a new president—but most states require residents to register well before Election Day. If you’re super busy, rest assured: Getting authorized to cast your ballot doesn’t need to be a tedious or time-consuming process. Once you’ve confirmed your local deadline, consider one of the simple registration tactics below.

1. LOG IN TO SNAPCHAT.

Snapchat has partnered with TurboVote, a voter registration app launched by nonprofit Democracy Works, to check users’ eligibility to vote—and if they’re qualified, to register them. Sign in to the video and picture-sharing app, and you’ll see video ads for the process (starring Jimmy Fallon, The Rock, and other celebrities) between Snapchat's Stories and Discover pages. Swipe up, and you’ll be led to a voter registration mobile webpage within the app.

Snapchat’s partnership with TurboVote runs until October 7.

2. SEND A TEXT OR FACEBOOK MESSAGE.

Thanks to HelloVote—which bills itself as the first text message-based voter-registration tool—you can now register to vote by sending a text or Facebook message. Simply text 384-387 or go to m.me/hellovote in Facebook Messenger. You’ll be provided with a form requesting your name, mailing address, and voter eligibility information (which varies from state to state), and if your state allows instant registration, HelloVote will submit the electronic paperwork for you. If not, don’t sweat it: You’ll be mailed the form, along with a pre-addressed stamped envelope. Sign it, send it to your local Board of Elections, and voila!—you’re all set to vote this November.

3. CLICK ON A GOOGLE DOODLE.

This year, National Voter Registration Day falls on September 27. To celebrate the occasion, Google has rolled out a special new Google Doodle. Click on the Doodle, and you’ll be led to a page with instructions on how to register by mail, in person, or online, depending on each state’s individual guidelines. You’ll also be provided with voting requirements and registration deadlines.

4. SIGN IN TO FACEBOOK.

On Friday, September 23, Facebook introduced a four-day nationwide voting registration drive. If you haven't already taken advantage of it, you can still catch its tail end. Log in to your account, and you’ll see a "Vote Now" button at the top of your Newsfeed. It leads you to USA.gov, which, in turn, directs you to your state's online voter registration page. Once you’re all finished, you can update your status to say you’ve registered.

BONUS: HANG WITH THE CAST OF HAMILTON.

This way will likely take more than five minutes, but it might be the most exciting on this list. On Wednesday, September 28, some of the musical’s cast members will lead a voter registration event outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre in midtown Manhattan. Swing by between 5 and 7 p.m., and the actors—who have been trained by voter registration volunteers from The Hispanic Federation, a Latino nonprofit membership organization—will provide national registration forms and guide you through the process.

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