COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Voters around the United States cast ballots on Tuesday in local and state elections, including ballot initiatives in Ohio to curb union power and in Mississippi that could outlaw abortion, governors races in Kentucky and Mississippi, and big-city mayoral contests.
The elections were the last before voters go to the polls early next year in various state primaries and caucuses to pick a Republican challenger to face President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 2012 presidential contest.
One closely watched ballot initiative is in Mississippi, where voters are asked to decide whether human life begins at conception, the so-called “personhood amendment” to the state constitution.
If it passes, Mississippi would be the first U.S. state to define a fertilized egg as a person, a controversial concept aimed at outlawing abortion, some types of birth control and infertility methods that result in the loss of embryos.
This would open a new front in the political and legal battles over abortion in the United States, and could embolden abortion opponents to try to pass such measures in other states.
Governors will be chosen in Kentucky and Mississippi. There are elections for mayors in eight of the nation’s largest 25 cities including Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Phoenix.
Ohio, a key swing state won by President Barack Obama in the 2008 election, has a closely watched vote over the power of organized labor, which suffered setbacks this year in Wisconsin and other states.
Voters will decide whether to overturn a law that would severely restrict the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions in the state.
The weather in such major Ohio cities as Columbus and Cincinnati was fine, which should help turnout, poll watchers said.
Kathi Schear, an election official in the Columbus neighborhood of Clintonville, said she has worked 11 elections, including the last presidential vote, and had never seen turnout as high as on Tuesday morning.
In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory visited polling places to greet voters and encourage them to vote to reject the law, a centerpiece of Republican Governor John Kasich’s legislative agenda.
It passed the Republican-dominated assembly in the spring. But opponents were able to gather 1.3 million signatures to halt its enactment and put it on the ballot for repeal.
“The weather is great. Hopefully the stars are aligning. There seems to be a buzz in the community about the issue,” Mallory said. “I think people know it’s a horrible attack on unions and hopefully the people of Ohio will turn it back.”
A Quinnipiac University poll showed that as of late October, nearly 6 out of 10 Ohio voters surveyed wanted the law repealed.
While massive protests in Wisconsin earlier this year grabbed national attention, Ohio is more important to unions. It has 360,000 public sector union members and the fifth largest number of total union members in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
We Are Ohio, a group opposing the law, has raised $19 million, according to the Ohio Secretary of State, versus $7.6 million raised for supporters. Money has poured into television ads, and thousands of volunteers on both sides have worked phone banks and gone door to door to get out the vote.
In Mississippi, the anti-abortion personhood amendment drew passionate reactions from voters on both sides of the issue.
“I voted for it,” said Lillie Graham, a 56-year-old mother of four children in Meridian, Mississippi.
“No one should take a life like that. When you conceive, you conceive,” she said.
Jackson resident Michelle Colon, 38, said she helped organize grassroots efforts against the proposed constitutional amendment.
“The anti-choice people lied and hoodwinked the voters,” she said. “We organized to get the truth out about this. They did not tell the people how far-reaching it would be.”
Political analysts also are expected to watch closely contests for state legislature seats in Virginia and Iowa. Republicans are trying to win a majority of seats in the Virginia Senate, which would be a bad sign for Obama, who won Virginia in 2008 and hopes to do so again in 2012.
A special election for an Iowa state Senate seat could change the balance of power there and encourage Republicans to try to overturn the state’s approval of same sex marriage.
An Arizona lawmaker who championed the state’s tough crackdown on illegal immigration last year faces a recall election.
Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan, Patricia Zengerle, Colleen Jenkins, Verna Gates, Ian Simpson. Kay Henderson and Lauren Keiper; Editing by Eric Beech and Jerry Norton