Ten things to think through before sponsoring a ballot initiative: to increase the chance for success at the ballot box, issue proponents should do the necessary work prior to filing an initiative to assess whether the process is right for their issue – Political Adviser
The ballot initiative and referendum processes in this country provide opportunities for activists and organizations to advance a cause and pass good public policy. With shifting partisan control of state legislatures, many activists have found their usual avenues for change blocked, making the ballot issue route more attractive.
Although the initiative process can be an effective way to embed new policies into state law, like all mechanisms for political change, ballot initiative campaigns are costly and time consuming. To increase the chance for success at the ballot box, initiative proponents should do the necessary work prior to filing an initiative to assess whether the process is right for their issue.
Following is a list of 10 things that potential ballot initiative proponents should ask themselves prior to sponsoring a ballot measure.
1. Does your initiative have voter appeal?
Does the initiative have a personable or emotional angle that can be exploited? If approved by voters how would it affect the lives of the majority of the people in the state? As much as possible, ballot initiatives should be structured to appeal directly to voters’ self-interests. People who do not have a personal stake in the outcome of a ballot measure are much more likely to be influenced by misleading information from opponents.
Initiatives to cut taxes have been extremely successful over the sears, not necessarily because voters make an ideologically driven decision to shrink government, but because these measures almost always appeal to voters’ self-interest. On the flip side, self-interest also has made some tax initiatives victorious; non-smokers vote to increase taxes on a product they don’t use in exchange for something tangible like access to prescription drugs or early childhood education.
This is not to suggest that policy issues embraced by Americans do not often times appeal to their sense of fairness or empathy for others. However, an issue that doesn’t appeal to a voter’s self-interest is often more appropriate for a lobbying or grass-roots mobilization campaign rather than a ballot initiative.
Ballot initiatives to change election procedures are often difficult to frame in ways that appeal to a voter’s self-interest. In 2002, proponents of same-day voter registration were unable to convince voters that it was in their self-interest to make it easier for non-registered citizens to register to vote.
The best way to gauge popular support for an initiative is to poll on the proposed measure in question. Ballot initiative campaigns should begin with support of at least 65 percent of voters. The lower the support at the start of a campaign, the higher the probability that opponents can move votes below 50 percent. Remember, most voters are predisposed to keep the status quo, especially if the opposition spends heavily against the measure. Less than half of all qualified ballot initiatives have been approved by voters.
2. Is it simple and straightforward?
Structuring too complex of a ballot measure–often by attempting to do too much in one law–is the death knell of a ballot initiative. Complex issues in this country often cannot be resolved by initiatives. Successful initiatives can always be explained in one succinct statement and often times locus on populist themes, especially if they’re structured to appeal to something broader than a voter’s self-interest. Simple ballot initiative concepts also lend themselves to effective advertising campaigns. Ballot initiatives can get lost in the sea of news stories about candidates; therefore campaigns should not rely solely on an earned media effort to communicate with voters.
The 2002 ballot initiative in Oregon 2002 to Increase the state s minimum wage and tie future increases to inflation is an example of a simple, straightforward issue. Despite being outspent 2 to 1, proponents were successful. The measure was easy to understand–the message emphasized “economic justice and fairness”–and the media campaign focused on the lives of the individuals who benefited from wage increases. Although most voters are not working for minimum wage, the notion of adults working full time for less than $13,000 a year intuitively doesn’t seem fair to most Americans.
3. Does it have strategic or tactical value?
Look at the implications of the proposed ballot measure. How far-reaching is it? Has a similar law been approved in other states and, if so, is there potential to replicate it? Campaign finance changes, legalization of medicinal marijuana and term limits are examples of initiatives with both replicability and far-reaching implications. The mere suggestion of a ballot measure also can be an effective way to leverage legislative change for decision-makers who, for a variety of reasons, don’t want to see an issue put to a vote.
Is the initiative diversionary? Will it force the opposition to spend a lot of money and time on the campaign? Ballot initiatives have often been used to drain the resources of an adversary, or at the very least distract them from their agenda. Does the presence of an initiative force the most staunch opposition to spend money against it? Conservatives have used this strategy to force opposition groups to go on the defensive and use valuable resources on running no campaigns against initiatives that threatened abortion rights, affirmative action, equal rights, the environment, organized workers, public employees and public education.
4. Can you attract the necessary resources to win?
The chances of victory are directly correlated with the amount of money raised and are almost always proportional to the amount of money the opposition spends. It is vital to research the opposition’s financial capacity and carefully assess how much money and resources they will devote to defeating an initiative. If opponents have the potential to overwhelm a campaign with opposition funds, an initiative strategy may not be the best method to pursue. Successful initiatives tend to out-raise and out-spend their opposition. There are exceptions to this rule, but by and large if the opposition spends significantly more than the proponents, they are almost guaranteed to win.
Think clearly about actions that could be taken during the drafting of an initiative that could reduce the opposition. And start building alliances as soon as possible. For instance, the environmental organizations behind the 2002 water bonds initiative in California derive their success in part from lobbying their potential opponents, like the chamber of commerce, into backing away from running an opposition campaign well before the election.
Where initiative proponents were in a position to mount adequately funded, staffed and strategized campaigns in 2002, they won some important victories. On the other hand, some of the most well-publicized initiatives in the last cycle were never genuinely competitive, and their defeat was no real surprise. Oregon’s universal health care initiative laced 32-to-1 spending odds; Montana’s “buy the dams” public lands measure was outspent 41-to-l, and Oregon’s genetically modified foods labeling measure was outspent 61-to-1, because the agricultural industry dumped more than $5 million into the campaign to defeat this measure. All three of these campaigns began with broad-based support, but they simply could not overcome their enormous opposition.
Initiatives are costly, both in terms of human resources and real dollars. Campaigns can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $100 million depending on the state, issue and opposition. It is essential to have a feasible fund-raising plan in place before attempting to qualify a measure. Most winning campaigns pay for at least a portion of the signatures to qualify a measure and organize a communications strategy that includes radio and television.
People power is equally important to consider. Particularly for citizen-based ballot initiative efforts, it is imperative to have people on the ground across the state who are connected and invested in the initiative. Potential allies should be identified and brought into the campaign coalition early, especially members of the community who have credibility with the public, opinion leaders and the media. Campaigns with limited resources also should strive to attract support among organizations with many members and volunteers.
5. Is it cost- effective and will it cost relatively little to qualify?
It is not simply a matter of whether resources are available, but also whether investing previous resources in a ballot measure campaign is cost effective in the brag term. If most of the campaign funds needed to qualify a measure should be spent on signature gathering, then a ballot initiative is not the right approach to take. One of the first tactical considerations the campaign should undertake is deciding whether to utilize paid or volunteer signature gatherers.
All-volunteer efforts are few and far between these days, but where possible they can be very effective. Through volunteers, the Humane Society of the United States had collected 500,000 signatures to qualify a Florida initiative to ban gestation crates for pregnant pigs. After they spent 18 months gathering signatures, the nonprofit also had a database of about 12,000 volunteers.
Like everything else in a ballot initiative campaign, a decision about a method for collecting signatures is often a budgetary one. Costs for qualifying measures vary from state to state, largely based on the number of signatures required. Most states require that between 5 and 20 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election must have signed a petition. Several states call for a geographic distribution of signatures. In Utah, 10 percent of the required signatures must come from 20 of 29 counties. Some states even require signature gatherers to be residents of the state.
Paid signatures can cost anywhere from $1 to $4 per signature, depending on the number of petitions being circulated in a state at the same time, geographic requirements and several other factors, including the complexity of the issue. The more complex the issue, the harder it is to obtain a signature because it takes more time to explain the issue to voters. For a state like Florida, the costs could reach around $1 million to qualify a measure in an effort entirely driven by paid signatures.
Even without using paid signature gatherers, volunteer signature gathering also requires expenditures for recruiting, training and managing volunteers. Some experts believe that volunteer signature gathering drives can be nearly as expensive as signature-gathering efforts.
6. Is the political climate right?
Like everything in life, timing matters. In many states, ballot initiative proponents can choose which election in which they want to participate. Elections–and varying sets of competing candidates–draw different kinds of voters. Presidential elections tend to pull more liberal voters than off-year elections. Low turnout elections tend to bring out a disproportionate amount of white fiscal conservatives. Careful thought should be given to how this affects the initiative issue in question.
Consideration should also be given to other issues in the public consciousness when a ballot initiative is launched. Last year, fire-fighting and law enforcement organizations in Washington state encountered little opposition to an initiative that would increase control over their pensions. This is hardly surprising, given the level of community support these public servants enjoy since Sept. 11 and the public’s increasing understanding of how important it is for workers to have control over their retirement funds. In this last election cycle, the climate was amenable to anti tobacco ballot measures. Burnt by previous legal and initiative failures, tobacco companies put little money or effort into opposing Florida’s Measure 6, the indoor work place smoking ban, which was approved by 70 percent of voters.
7. Will the ballot language be in your favor?
Ballot initiative titles and summaries should be as simple and succinct as possible. Many initiative veterans believe that no single factor is more important to the success or failure of a campaign than the language of the initiative itself, especially the title. Even with an effective outreach strategy, some voters will know nothing about a ballot initiative until they read the language for the first time in the voting booth.
Many otherwise strong initiatives have failed merely because of complex or confusing ballot language. This provides an opportunity for the opposition to manipulate voters. In states where proponents can write their own ballot language title, must successful campaigns test alternative ballot language through public opinion polling and focus groups.
Fiscal notes, which are attached to the ballot summary in the stales that require them, can complicate things. Ohio is one of about 12 states that requires fiscal notes for initiatives. However, unlike California, Ohio doesn’t include information on the cost savings of implementing a measure. This is believed to be the main reason that the 2002 drug treatment instead of incarceration measure in Ohio failed. The ballot title included the cost for implementing the measure over seven years with no reference to cost savings. The yes campaign chose not to challenge the language because the state Supreme Court justice who would have beard their argument was openly opposed to the measure. The campaign’s polling showed that voters’ knowledge of the measure’s projected cost, without showing costs savings, was the biggest factor in reducing support for the initiative to 32 percent from about 66 percent.
So-called “paycheck protection” measure have benefited from titles that read like traditional campaign finance reform initiatives for example.
In Florida, the League of Cities convinced the legislature in 1990 to refer a measure to ban unfunded mandates. The legislature which was opposed to the referendum drafted such confusing language–the title had a triple negative–that voters, upon initial reading, thought it would have the opposite effect to what the law would actually do. It is important that ballot initiative proponents try to maintain control of their language when possible.
8. Does it help or hurt candidates?
Research shows that the usage of the initiative process is associated with higher voter turnout in both presidential and midterm elections. The presence of certain ballot initiatives, such as a minimum wage increase or anti-abortion measure, can compel a certain type of voter to come to the polls and dramatically affect the outcome of the rest of the election. The presence of controversial ballot initiatives, like gun control, often leads opponents to pour money into extensive GOTV operations that can help or hurt certain candidates.
Ballot initiative results can sometimes have unintended political consequences. The Latino vote in California over the past 21 years has been greatly influenced by two particularly controversial and divisive ballot initiatives. Ronald Reagan and other Republicans in the state had as much as 40 percent of the California Latino vote until the 1994 governor’s race in which Pete Wilson, then the Republican incumbent championed Prop. 187, which sought to deny public services in illegal immigrants Although Wilson won, the Republicans share of the Hispanic vote in California has hovered between 20 percent and 29 percent. Experts attribute this to the political effect of Wilson’s association with this controversial measure.
The anti-affirmative action initiative in California–Prop. 209–had a similarly powerful result on turnout. Approved by voters in 1996, Prop. 209 banned the consideration of race in public hiring, contracting and school admissions. The California Republican Party supported the measure, and Republican lawmakers aggressively raised campaign funds for it. A pro-Prop. 209 television ad used the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to convince voters the measure would lead to a color-blind society. But political observers say the campaign alienated minority voters from the Republican Party. The GOP lost its majority in the California Assembly that election, in part because minority voters incensed by Prop. 209 flocked to the polls. Gov. Jeb Bush is said to have prevented the California proponents from sponsoring a similar measure in Florida in 2000 because he didn’t want a racially divisive campaign to distract from the 2000 presidential election.
9. Does it help or hurt other ballot initiatives?
In Washington state, gay rights activists collected the necessary signatures in 1996 to qualify a non-discrimination measure. During the same year, Washington Citizens for Handgun Safety placed an initiative on the ballot that would have required safety locks for handguns. The National Rifle Association made a major push to defeat this measure. It attracted a significant number of gun advocates to the polls who not only voted against the gun safety measure but also against the gay rights initiative and for the initiative to eliminate affirmative action.
Improved coordination between like-minded campaigns and strategic positioning of certain ballot measures on particular elections can help ensure success.
10. Are you prepared to win?
Losing isn’t winning. It is a grave mistake to think there is something beneficial to fighting the good light for a ballot initiative without ensuring victory. Initiatives are difficult undertakings and should only be waged if proponents believe there is a strong opportunity for success. Have all administrative, legal and legislative avenues to pass a law truly been exhausted? Policy issues in some states will never find success legislatively, which is why the process has been so important to institute laws like physician–assisted suicide, clean elections, animal protections and creating funds for open space and education. By and large, if an initiative fails, it does little good. Ballot initiative campaigns can codify existing sentiments and beliefs that can either propel a movement or set it back.
RELATED ARTICLE: Writing Ballot Issue Titles: What Is the Process in Your State?
Every initiative state requires review and approval of the Election Day ballot title, caption and summary.
Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Oklahoma permit proponents to write the ballot title, but it is subject to approval by the attorney general or secretary of state. Oklahoma additionally requires that the ballot title bc certified by the superintendent of public instruction for readability at the eighth-grade level.
Eleven states (Alaska, California, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) place responsibility for drafting the ballot title and summary with the attorney general, secretary of state or comparable official.
Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and South Dakota assign the task to a special committee or drafting board.
Colorado, Oregon and Washington, D.C., allow public comment in drafting the ballot title.
Fourteen states provide expedited court review of contested ballot title wording.
Information provided by the Initiative and Referendum Institute.
Kristina Wilfore is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a nonprofit “progressive” advocacy organization.
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