State Ballot Initiatives Could Boost Turnout, Affecting Key Races

Will Alaska's marijuana ballot proposal help sway the course of the state's U.S. Senate and governor's race? Will Alaska's marijuana ballot proposal help sway the course of the state's U.S. Senate and governor's race? Ufuk ZIVANA / Shutterstock.com

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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