Democrats are hoping that growing support for medical and recreational marijuana can spur party turnout in this year's midterms, especially in getting young voters to the polls. But despite early optimism that such efforts could be an easy fix to their turnout problems, upon closer review, there's only a loose connection between the two.
Voters in at least six states are expected to vote on marijuana initiatives in 2014. The deadlines for most ballot initiatives aren't until the summer in many places, but signature-gathering requirements are generally cumbersome enough that others are unlikely to join at this stage. In four of them — Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, and Ohio — voters could decide whether to allow medical marijuana. Oregon and Alaska, meanwhile, are favored to legalize the substance. Arkansas, Alaska, and Oregon are host to competitive Senate races this year, and Arkansas, Florida, and Ohio are home to contested gubernatorial seats.
Pot earned its reputation as a Democratic turnout trick in 2012, when measures to expand access to it appeared on the ballot in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. In those states, turnout among voters between 18 and 29 spiked, increasing the youth share of the electorate between 5 and 12 percentage points from 2008. Nationally, the share of youth turnout grew by just 1 point between the two elections, from 18 percent to 19 percent.
In an interview last month with Political Wire's Taegan Goddard, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake suggested that Democrats could try to avoid record-low turnout among young voters this year by pushing ballot initiatives on issues young people care about.
"There are a couple of things that could help. In states that allow them — and there are 16 states that allow them — initiatives can help. Having initiatives that deal with student loans, having minimum wage initiatives, having initiatives that legalize marijuana — all of those things can help generate turnout because the young people will turn out for the initiative," Lake said.
If true, it would be a boon to Democratic candidates where the ballots initiatives are taking place. The electorate in midterm elections is less friendly to the party; compared with presidential years, voters are older, whiter, and more conservative. Party strategists have contemplated myriad ways to reverse this trend but have struggled to come up with realistic plans.
But the connection between youth turnout and pot on the ballot is tenuous -- raising the prospect that the Democrats will again have to look elsewhere to get millennials to the polls this November. Indeed, the Alaska measure is slated to appear on the state's August primary ballot, which isn't ideal for boosting vulnerable Democrat Mark Begich in the state's competitive Senate race come November. Also overlooked: In the 2010 California midterms, voters rejected Proposition 19 to legalize pot and young voters actually decreased as a share of the electorate between the 2006 and 2010 elections. Eighteen-to 29-year-olds made up 14 percent of Golden State voters in 2006, and 13 percent in 2010.
Bill Zimmerman, a California-based political consultant, has led seven total initiative campaigns for medical marijuana to date, including the first ever campaign in California in 1996.
"I've managed seven medical-marijuana initiatives between 1996 and 2000, and we looked very closely for any evidence of an increase in turnout among young people. We did this because we wanted to know so we could take advantage of it in subsequent elections, but we never saw any evidence of it at all," Zimmerman said. He also believes support among young voters for legalization in California in 2010 was offset by some voting against it because they felt it was too restrictive.
Indeed, unlike recreational pot, initiatives for medical marijuana have no proven track record of boosting turnout in either a midterm or a presidential year, and four of this year's six possible initiatives are for medical, not recreational, pot. Arizona voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2010 and still saw its youth participation decrease 2 percentage points from 2006 to 2010. In 2012, a medical-marijuana initiative in Massachusetts coincided with just a 1-point increase in turnout — the same percentage it grew nationally between 2008 and 2012. Michigan also voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2008 but not in 2012, and the share of young voters in the overall electorate dropped by just 1 percentage point, a margin too small to draw any firm connections between medical ballot initiatives and youth turnout.
Zimmerman is unconvinced that even legalization measures drive turnout to any significant extent, mostly because the prime examples coincided with the reelection of one of the nation's most popular presidents among young voters in recent history. "The motivation that young people had to vote for someone like Obama [in 2008 and 2012] was very powerful, and I don't know how to disaggregate that from motivation to vote for marijuana," he said.
Despite this, Democratic prospects should brighten in 2016 when organizers in Arizona, California, and Nevada are laying the groundwork for legalization initiatives. Demographics will be more favorable during a presidential year, and public opinion will have an additional two years to shift in favor of passage, offering more opportunities to experiment with marijuana legalization and its impact on turnout.