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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

Weekly Comment

Ballot Initiatives: Use By Political Parties

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May 23, 2006

Those who put ballot initiative procedures into state constitutions thought that they were a counterpoint to political parties. When politicians ignored the wishes of the people, the people by using ballot initiatives could enact their views into law.

But politicians are a resourceful group, and they are figured out how to use ballot initiatives to advance their political party's fortunes. They have discovered the "wedge" ballot proposal.

Here is how it works. A political party needs to energize its political base for an election so its core voters will show up at the polls. If they show up they will vote for the party's candidates. To whip up excitement among these loyal but undependable voters the party puts a carefully selected initiative on the ballot. The initiative is on a hot button issue that the party's core voters care very deeply about. The core voters will show up just to vote on the initiative and stay long enough in the voting booth to also vote for the party's candidates for office.

Republicans used initiatives on gay marriage in the 2004 President race to turn out conservative voters. Some pundits claimed that the Ohio initiative on gay marriage gave President Bush the extra 60,000 votes he needed to claim the Electoral College votes of Ohio, the pivotal state in the election. In this year's congressional elections, the gay marriage initiative is on another six state ballots. Republicans are also using initiatives on tax and spending limits to turn out their base conservative constituency in several other states.

The Democrats, although late to the tactic, have responded with ballot initiatives of their own. In the 2004 senatorial race in Colorado, the Democrats took back a seat held by the Republicans with the help of a ballot initiative promoting renewable energy sources. In six states this year, Democrats have successfully placed initiatives on the ballot that raise the minimum wage. In Missouri this year, a Democrat for the Senate is hoping for help from a ballot initiative permitting private funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

Academic research has found that ballot initiatives are effective in midterm elections. The authors of the studies have found that ballot initiatives can increase voter turnout by as much as eight percentage points. The studies of presidential campaign are mixed, however; some find no effect on voter turnout in some states while others find a small effect.

With political parties sponsoring initiatives, the most dramatic change will be in states, such as Ohio, that require petition signatures from at least one-half of the state counties to get an initiative on the ballot. Political parties have organizations ready to go in each county while citizen groups must struggle to create them. State, such as Ohio, will see a dramatic increase in ballot initiatives once political parties get involved.

But, as I noted above, politicians are a resourceful group, and they are already developing counter measures. The most obvious counter-measure is to match ballot initiative with ballot initiative. Both parties struggle to get offsetting ballot initiatives on the same ballot.

The more subtle counter-measure is to moot an opponent's ballot initiative with legislation. In Michigan and Arkansas, for example, Republicans in the state legislature passed minimum wage increases to keep the Democrats' initiative on minimum wages off the ballot. Around elections, then, we can expect to see state legislatures flip-flop on legislation. A state legislature controlled by one party that has blocked legislation promoted by the other will pass, on the eve of the election, the other party's bills.

This counter-measure, of course, will further encourage a minority party to have several ballot initiatives in advance of any election.

[Editor's Note: Here in Ohio, we are currently witnessing an interesting twist on the use of legislation in an effort to moot a ballot initiative: Republicans in the state's General Assembly are proposing tax-reduction legislation to moot the Tax Expenditure Limitation initiative, promoted by their own gubernatorial candidate (current Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell), but now widely viewed as a political liability. It remains to be seen whether this legislative effort will succeed in removing the initiative from Ohio's ballot in November.]

Whether all these is good or bad is hard to say. One thing is for certain, however, political parties will remain very vigorous proponents of ballot initiatives in all future elections.