State Ballot Initiatives Could Boost Turnout, Affecting Key Races

Voters this year aren’t just deciding control of the Senate.

A vendor weighs buds for card-carrying medical marijuana patients attending Los Angeles' first-ever cannabis farmer's market at the West Coast Collective medical marijuana dispensary, on the fourth of July, or Independence Day, in Los Angeles, California on July 4, 2014 where organizer's of the 3-day event plan to showcase high quality cannabis from growers and vendors throughout the state.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Oct. 27, 2014, 4:10 p.m.

When Alaskans vote next Tues­day, they’ll de­cide not just on a gov­ernor and a sen­at­or, but also on wheth­er to leg­al­ize re­cre­ation­al marijuana use, hike the state’s min­im­um wage, and re­quire the Le­gis­lature to ap­prove any fu­ture large-scale min­ing in one the world’s most pro­duct­ive sal­mon fish­er­ies.

“These are not just side dishes. They are a big part of Tues­day’s bal­lot,” said Alaska Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Mike Wen­strup on Monday. Not only do they rep­res­ent ma­jor policy de­cisions, he said, but Demo­crats who might oth­er­wise skip the elec­tion may turn out on these is­sues. And with the both the gov­ernor and Sen­ate races so tight, “every little bit helps,” he said.

Across the coun­try, 146 bal­lot pro­pos­i­tions go be­fore voters on Nov. 4. Com­bined with meas­ures de­cided earli­er this year, it brings the total num­ber of statewide is­sues in 2014 to 158. There has been a down­ward trend in bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives in the past 30 years, which some blame on com­plic­ated re­quire­ments im­posed by state of­fi­cials. There were 176 pro­pos­i­tions in 2012.

Yet, in a midterm elec­tion where low voter turnout is seen as in­ev­it­able—even with con­trol of the U.S. Sen­ate at stake—some say a num­ber of this fall’s high­er-pro­file meas­ures could help in­flu­ence the out­comes of close races, such as in Alaska and Col­or­ado.

Even if they do not, in­de­pend­ent bal­lot ex­perts say the fates of some ini­ti­at­ives this year could have big im­pacts on lives and pub­lic policy, and can help de­term­ine if sim­il­ar is­sues move for­ward in oth­er states. At the same time, a pre­vi­ous hot-but­ton is­sue—same-sex mar­riage—is not part of the bal­lot land­scape this year.

But marijuana, abor­tion, guns, and min­im­um wage are re­turn­ing as key is­sues this year, said Wendy Un­der­hill, pro­gram man­ager for elec­tions at the Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of State Le­gis­latures. Sev­er­al of these ini­ti­at­ives have drawn mil­lions of dol­lars from those on either side. The NCLS has a data­base con­tain­ing a cen­tury’s worth of statewide bal­lot meas­ures.

The re­cre­ation­al use of marijuana is be­ing put be­fore voters not only in Alaska, but also in the Dis­trict of Columbia and Ore­gon. Mean­while, Flor­ida and Guam will pose ques­tions about the med­ic­al use of marijuana on their bal­lots. And big-time dol­lars (more than $16 mil­lion) have been spent in the buildup to a vote in Ore­gon on la­beling food that con­tains ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied in­gredi­ents. This could be the make-or-break vote on such le­gis­la­tion, with pre­vi­ous rendi­tions hav­ing failed in both Cali­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton State.

State min­im­um-wage in­creases are up in four oth­er states be­sides Alaska and ini­ti­at­ives in three states—Col­or­ado, North Dakota, and Ten­ness­ee—would chal­lenge some abor­tions.

In ad­di­tion, Ari­zona voters will de­cide wheth­er to al­low ter­min­ally ill pa­tients to have ac­cess to drugs that have not made it through the full ap­prov­al pro­cess; Wash­ing­ton voters will de­cide on two op­pos­ing meas­ures on back­ground checks for pur­chas­ing guns.

Also, a mixed bag of vot­ing-rights meas­ures are on the bal­lot in Con­necti­c­ut, Illinois, Mis­souri, and Montana. For in­stance, Con­necti­c­ut voters will de­cide wheth­er to al­low the Le­gis­lature to ex­pand early vot­ing laws, while Montanans will de­cide wheth­er to elim­in­ate Elec­tion Day voter re­gis­tra­tion.

Pro­posed tax policies also will ap­pear on sev­er­al state bal­lots, as well as bond is­sues and oth­er trans­port­a­tion fin­ance ques­tions, and wheth­er to either ex­pand casino gambling or pre­vent gambling. One meas­ure would re­strict ways that Maine res­id­ents can hunt for bears; an­oth­er would ush­er in drug test­ing of doc­tors; and an­oth­er would de­term­ine wheth­er Ore­gon judges should be per­mit­ted to serve in the Na­tion­al Guard or work at a uni­versity.

Justine Sarv­er, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the pro­gress­ive Bal­lot Ini­ti­at­ive Strategy Cen­ter, said that any over­arch­ing theme to this year’s bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives would be the “frus­tra­tion with gov­ern­ment” or the pace of gov­ern­ment seen as do­ing little. She said that re­gard­less of wheth­er cer­tain ini­ti­at­ives are bind­ing, the bal­lot pro­cess gives cit­izens an op­por­tun­ity to have some “dir­ect say” on is­sues—and typ­ic­ally also forces can­did­ates to take a stand on these ini­ti­at­ives as well.

An­oth­er theme could be the will­ing­ness of cor­por­a­tions and oth­er en­tit­ies to spend for or against ini­ti­at­ives that could im­pact their busi­ness in­terests. For in­stance, a pro­pos­i­tion in Cali­for­nia to give the state more au­thor­ity to reg­u­late in­sur­ance rates has led in­sur­ance com­pan­ies to spend more than $25 mil­lion to de­feat the meas­ure.

Then there’s the po­ten­tial “spillover” im­pact on oth­er races—something hoped for in Alaska by Wen­strup, the Demo­crat­ic chair­man.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ini­ti­at­ive and Ref­er­en­dum In­sti­tute of the Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia, some re­search in­dic­ates bal­lot pro­pos­i­tions do at­tract more voters to the polls—per­haps as much as an ad­ded 1 per­cent for each pro­pos­i­tion. But the in­sti­tute also says in its elec­tion pre­view that high­er-pro­file pro­pos­i­tions tend to at­tract both sup­port­ers and op­pon­ents—and it is not clear which group is more likely to be drawn to the polls or which way the net ef­fect runs.

The in­sti­tute has iden­ti­fied Alaska and Col­or­ado as two key states to watch for such spillover im­pacts. In Alaska, where there state has a tight race between Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich and Re­pub­lic­an At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Dan Sul­li­van, it notes that ini­ti­at­ives re­gard­ing the state’s min­im­um wage, marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion, and min­ing in Bris­tol Bay are “high-pro­file ini­ti­at­ives ex­pec­ted to ap­peal to pro­gress­ive voters.”

The in­sti­tute also points out that sev­er­al high-pro­file ini­ti­at­ives are on the bal­lot in Col­or­ado, where Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Ud­all is in a tight reelec­tion race against Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Cory Gard­ner. Con­ser­vat­ives are pro­mot­ing one that would define “per­son­age” in such a way as to ban abor­tion, while pro­gress­ives are pro­mot­ing the state’s own meas­ure re­quir­ing la­beling of ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied foods.

But Brit­tany Clin­gen, the bal­lot meas­ures pro­ject dir­ect­or at Bal­lot­pe­dia.org, said that voters of­ten can hold a very skep­tic­al view of bal­lot meas­ures, turned off by the real­iz­a­tion that what is be­ing asked could really be de­signed for the nar­row in­terests of a few.

Adding to this per­cep­tion, said Clin­gen, is that the ini­ti­at­ive lan­guage or pro­cess can it­self ap­pear overly con­fus­ing, or even de­cept­ive, to what ex­actly vot­ing “yes” or “no” would mean.

She poin­ted to one, titled “The Arkan­sas Elec­ted Of­fi­cials Eth­ics, Trans­par­ency and Fin­an­cial Re­form of 2014.” Bur­ied in its lan­guage is a change to the state’s le­gis­lat­ive term lim­its—to ex­pand law­makers’ po­ten­tial ser­vice in the state­house to a total of 16 years.

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