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What does "Local Option" Mean?

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  • Written By: Dale Marshall
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2016
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"Local option" is a term used to describe the practice of letting counties and municipalities in American states decide certain issues for themselves by popular vote. Most frequently associated with alcohol sales, many states also utilize the process to make decisions on other issues, such as local taxation for local purposes. Countless municipalities and counties, mostly in the South but also as far north as Alaska, are fully or partially "dry" — that is, the sale of alcohol is prohibited or restricted — due to citizens exercising their rights under local option laws.

If a state uses the local option, that does not mean the state is trying to avoid its responsibilities on controversial or sensitive issues. In fact, the two issues most commonly decided by local option, alcohol sales and local taxes, are already highly regulated by all states. This option gives localities the authority to refine those regulations for application in their own counties.

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Local option in the US traces its roots back far before the signing of the Constitution, when the town meeting was the predominant form of government, and many towns and counties voted themselves wet or dry as a simple matter of town governance. It became a tool for the Anti-Saloon League in the two decades leading up to passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited alcohol nationwide. Instead of campaigning for prohibition on a national level, the League campaigned in county after county to ban the sale of alcohol on a local level. The league reasoned that the more localities that went dry by local option, the greater would be the pressure on the Congress to pass the amendment, and on the states to ratify it.

The 21st Amendment, ratified in 1933, repealed the 18th Amendment, but confirmed that states still had the authority to prohibit alcohol completely or partially. All states have legislation regulating the sale of alcohol within their borders, and 33 further permit their localities to regulate it more stringently, by local option. There are dozens of combinations of regulations a county or town might enact; some, for example, might permit the sale of beer and wine, but not distilled spirits, while others prohibit the sale of any alcoholic beverages entirely. Some local regulations specify the types of outlets that may sell different forms of alcohol, permitting convenience and grocery stores in some instances to sell beer and wine. Many localities permit the sale of alcohol for consumption on-premises, as in a tavern or restaurant, but prohibit the sale of alcohol to be consumed off-premises.

Local option is still a significant issue in politics in the South. In the spring of 2011, the Georgia legislature considered a motion to overturn the state's decades-old ban on Sunday alcohol sales by giving counties the right to decide the issue locally. A short-lived but heated campaign ensued before the measure died in committee. Also in Georgia, county-wide sales taxes with the proceeds dedicated to specific local projects or purposes are frequently on county ballots for their citizens' consideration; the campaigns promoting and opposing these taxes are usually very lively.

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