Did you know that voter turnout in states with ballot initiatives is much higher in general elections? This year each additional initiative on the ballot could correspond to an increase in turnout of roughly three to five percent?
Yet, although initiatives possess the power to draw voters to the ballot booths, their significance is often overshadowed by the sexier and louder parade of election activity created by candidate races. But initiatives shouldn’t be flippantly tossed aside this year by candidates and political operatives alike–they certainly haven’t been by rightwing organizations that understand the power and potential of ballot measures. Just take a look at my Top Ten list of hot initiatives for the year.
Top Ten Ballot Initiatives in 2004
1. Minimum wage increases in Florida and Nevada.
2. Anti-gay marriage bills in Missouri, Georgia, Utah and Mississippi.
3. Lottery funding for public education in Nevada and Oklahoma.
4. Conservation and open space battles in Arizona and Utah.
5. Ban on nuclear waste dumping in Washington.
6. Defense of Clean Elections in Arizona.
7. Tobacco tax for prescription drugs and health care in Colorado.
8. Defense of affirmative action in Michigan.
9. Progressive tax reform in Colorado.
10. Defense of healthcare insurance in California.
(Caveat: This is a constantly changing environment and although the campaigns mentioned in the list are highly likely to qualify, the initiative landscape won’t be fully clear until August.)
And for the larger argument about why progressives need to start looking at 2004 initiatives as opportunities, check out the smart op-ed below by Kristina Wilfore, Executive Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
The Political Opportunity of Ballot Initiatives by Kristina Wilfore
Today, initiatives are abounding in battleground states – largely in order to mobilize a conservative or progressive base, drive wedges into an opposing partisan coalition, and generate contributions to campaigns through what is increasingly considered a soft money loophole in a post BCRA world.
Tort restrictions, the denial of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and immigration, are expected to be the hottest issues of the day and will frame the political rhetoric of a variety of campaigns throughout the country. Furthermore, several contentious tax-related ballot measures have been filed as part of a coordinated strategy among groups like Center for a Sound Economy and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform to shrink government and put Democratic candidates on the hot seat in Maine, Nevada and Washington.
But before progressives wring their hands in anticipation of doom and gloom at the ballot box, let’s not forget the political opportunity that lies before us. Whether on defense or offense, ballot initiatives create an opening to define what we stand for and make the other side look as repugnant as they truly are. But this can only be achieved if the organizations and individuals on the left that constitute the fabric of voter engagement vehicles for 2004 start to acknowledge these initiatives, drive resources to them, and develop a viable strategy for victory.
The long-term political effect of even socially divisive wedge issues hasn’t been all bad for progressives. After the passage of Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-immigrant initiative spearheaded by Governor Pete Wilson, Latino voters in subsequent elections become politically energized and increasingly hostile to Republican candidates. Measures modeled after Proposition 187 have been filed in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado for 2004. After Proposition 209, the 1996 measure to eliminate affirmative action in California, Republican candidate Dan Lungren received only 20 percent of the Hispanic vote, which at that time accounted for 14 percent of the state’s electorate. That same year, Bill Clinton won 73 percent of the Hispanic vote against Bob Dole, who championed an English-only ballot measure. This climate persisted into the 2000 election when Al Gore received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote against George W. Bush, despite the fact that Bush, speaking Spanish, campaigned heavily to win over Hispanic voters.
On the flip side, turnout in Washington state in 1998 increased by as much as four percentage points thanks to the presence of a minimum wage initiative. This increase was even more pronounced among those with poor or inconsistent voting histories. That year, Democrats unexpectedly won 50 percent of the contests for the state House of Representatives and the state Senate switched to a Democratic majority. This is part of the reason why progressive activists in Florida and Nevada are sponsoring minimum wage ballot initiatives of their own. Both measures are being used for the dual purpose of identifying and registering disenfranchised voters and to embed progressive economic policies in the state law. Just imagine, Democratic candidates could have a positive, pro-active economic message to run on in these states rather than defining their fiscal agenda by being against the Bush tax cut.
There is a lot at stake for Democrats in this year’s elections. In addition to possessing the power to take back the White House and other hotly contested positions where Republicans currently maintain tenuous control, a slew of state-based issues will hinge on the results of these ballot initiatives. Let’s hope the political organizations that have the lion’s share of election resources this year don’t look at ballot initiatives as a burden, but rather as an opportunity.