Authored by Kristina Wilfore – As Executive Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), Kristina Wilfore works with state and national progressive organizations, providing guidance on strategy and message to key initiative campaigns, coordinating ballot language research and drafting efforts, polling, training activists and placing them on targeted initiatives nationwide, and directing funders to critical campaigns.
In 2008, ballot initiatives could impact races up and down the ballot, including the Presidential campaign, by elevating an issue and shaping the debate. Dissatisfied voters in particular may see ballot initiatives as a means to fill the leadership vacuum by allowing citizens to take issues into their own hands.
On the Right this year, initiatives would ban equal opportunity programs for women and minorities, challenge a woman’s right to choose her own health care, discriminate against gays and lesbians on marriage and adoption, and cut vital services like education and health care for those that need it most.
Is this the sort of change dissatisfied voters are looking for?
We here at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center conducted public opinion research with independent, “swing” voters who may be swayed by the initiatives, and here is what we have learned:
- Voters head into this election season with serious concerns about the country and a strong feeling that the country is a rudderless boat, lacking leadership and drifting without direction.
- Voters feel America is falling behind and that it is no longer likely that we will pass on a better future to the next generation.
- Voters are ready to respond to big challenges in their lives.
- They know there are problems and want to address them.
Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for President Bush’s campaign in 2004, warned when speaking about the California marriage discrimination initiative that the Right’s approach might backfire this year: “At best, it doesn’t move voters, and at worst for Republicans, it moves them against them. Not so much on the issue, but it becomes, ‘Why are we having a discussion on this issue when we should be talking about things that matter, like the economy, or health care, or the war?’”
If people are looking for solutions that advance the common good, rather than more division, then progressives should feel good about some of the other ballot initiatives around the country—clean energy and home health care in Missouri; paid sick leave in Ohio and Milwaukee; children’s health care in Montana; and stem cell research in Michigan, among others.
These initiatives tend to be driven locally at the grassroots level, while the Right traditionally takes a two-pronged approach, with national organizations driving the process working in alliance with paid signature mills, state-based front groups, and other local organizations.
Unlike in previous years, where there were large, multistate efforts pushing a particular issue with ballot initiatives at the state level (marriage discrimination in 2004, so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and minimum wage increase in 2006), this year there is more of a grab bag of ballot initiatives attempting to advance individual issues.
Here is a look at a handful of conservative initiatives that will likely face voters on the ballot this year. (For more on progressive initiatives, I invite you to check out Ballot Initiative Strategy Center’s website at www.ballot.org.)
Ban Equal Opportunity
Ward Connerly, a right-wing race activist from California, proposes to rewrite state constitutions with a ban on equal opportunity programs. Connerly refuses to disclose out-of-state donors and has hired political operatives and companies with a long history of facing election fraud and ethics accusations.1 In Colorado, his efforts face a legal challenge to half the signatures he turned in to the state. In Arizona, he faces charges by a local coalition of opponents to the measure, including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, that those hired to gather signatures have misled voters by not informing them that the initiative would eliminate equal opportunity programs.2 In Nebraska, opponents of the initiative have claimed petition collectors are getting signatures illegally—filling out information for people signing petitions, misleading voters by not reading a required statement, and leaving signature sheets unattended.3 In Missouri, similar tactics failed to get his initiative on the ballot. And in Oklahoma, after the Secretary of State raised questions of fraud, duplicate signatures, and other irregularities on the petitions, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court began looking into the issue, Connerly requested to have his initiative withdrawn.
Threatening Women’s Health Choices
This is an issue that continues to be at the forefront of the right-wing agenda despite years of losses at the ballot box on antichoice ballot measures. In fact, advocates of reproductive justice have beaten back nearly 90 percent of all antichoice initiatives over the past two decades, capitalizing on the fact that most Americans are pro-choice in some form, and the initiatives have tended to be quite radical intrusions on women’s reproductive decision making.
This year we see antichoice ballot initiatives in three states: California, Colorado, and South Dakota. California’s parental notification initiative has failed in two previous attempts. South Dakotans can once again vote on whether to ban abortion, although they resoundingly rejected a similar ban in 2006. In Colorado, right- wing activists would redefine personhood in the state constitution as the moment of fertilization, an initiative that has divided conservatives even though it seeks to overturn Roe v Wade.
The Colorado initiative could lead to a ban on several of the most medically safe forms of birth control and could also ban or restrict common fertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilization. A supporter of a similar measure in Montana, where it failed to make the ballot, warned women could be investigated to see what they might have done to cause their miscarriages.
Marriage and Adoption Discrimination
The marriage discrimination strategies of 2004 lost their base-rallying potential when they reappeared in 2006, as voters began to see them as gimmicks.
Nevertheless, a California marriage discrimination initiative has qualified for ballot, and if passed would likely overturn a recent California Supreme Court decision that ruled that gay marriage was protected by the state constitution. Florida will vote on a marriage discrimination measure that would outlaw recognition of all same-sex partnerships. And in Arizona, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage has been approved by the Arizona legislature and referred to the ballot. In Arkansas, an initiative to take away adoption rights from “all unmarried couples” failed to collect enough qualified signatures in its first attempt and is now in the process of collecting more in order to get on the ballot.
In Arizona, four ballot initiatives were circulated but only one achieved enough viable signatures to make it on the ballot – a crack down on businesses which hire illegal immigrants. In Oregon, an “English only” initiative is on the ballot. This comprehensive initiative would prohibit teaching public school students in a language other than English for more than two years, regardless of their English proficiency. It does not allow for parents to choose programs for their children and it requires learning within specific timetables without providing tools for achieving goals.
Cutting Education and Health Care
One might imagine that antitax ideologues would have learned an expensive lesson after the defeat of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in all of the states where it was attempted in 2006. They didn’t. A property tax revenue limit initiative that could threaten vital services like education, health care, and police and fire protection is on the ballot in Florida.
Florida voters will also weigh in on two stealth amendments whose central purpose is to authorize state funding for vouchers to religious schools. Yet the word “vouchers” does not appear in either amendment. One amendment, 7, would repeal a 140-year-old state constitutional prohibition against spending public funds on religious institutions. The other, 9, would overturn a Florida Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional a voucher program approved while Jeb Bush was governor.
To fool voters even more, commissioners added to Amendment 9 a politically appealing, but practically meaningless, provision “Requiring 65 percent of school funding for classroom instruction.” The implication is that more school funds will be directly targeted at teachers and classroom activities. But that’s a ruse to sell an amendment that is otherwise intended to clear the way for more state spending on private, not public, schools.
In Oregon, an income tax cut is on the ballot that would cut state revenues by $3.4 billion. The average tax cut for the richest one percent would be $15,048, while the average tax cut for the middle 20 percent would be $1.
In North Dakota, signatures have been submitted for an initiative that would cut the income tax rate by 50 percent and cut the corporate income tax by 15 percent.
In Massachusetts, an initiative that would repeal the income tax altogether is on the ballot. The initiative would eliminate 40 percent of the state’s budget and lead to teacher layoffs, school closings, and cuts to higher education and worker training programs. It would also delay and eliminate road and bridge repairs, force cuts to health care services for those that need it most, and threaten neighborhood safety.
Maine’s step towards a public/private partnership to provide universal access to health insurance, known as Dirigo Health, had its funding mechanism revamped in the recently concluded legislative session. The state approved new funding sources, including a tax on beer, wine, and the syrup used in soft drinks. Maine has a provision in statute that allows anyone who disagrees with action taken by the legislature to initiate a “People’s Veto.” In this case, special interests from the big beverage industry have submitted petitions to place on the ballot an initiative that would strip the funding for the health care reform plan and derail universal health care.
Don’t underestimate the Right’s power to divide and distract voters.
In New Hampshire, voters in eight municipalities are deliberating on a revenue cap requiring local officials to restrict spending on vital services like snow removal, and police and fire protection. The initiative doesn’t take into account the rising health care costs and skyrocketing gas and energy costs that are burdening community budgets.
Attacking Working Families
On the ballot in Oregon is a “Paycheck Deception” initiative that would deprive workers of their voice in the political process. Banning the use of payroll deductions for political purposes unfairly singles out unions, leaving corporations and right- wing associations unaffected. In Colorado, signatures have been submitted to place an initiative on the ballot.
In South Dakota, “Paycheck Deception” has been combined with a ballot measure called “Open and Clean Government.” In Montana, an “Open and Clean Government” initiative failed to make the ballot, but signatures have been submitted in Colorado. The initiative would prohibit political contributions by persons and organizations with certain state or local government contracts. It also prohibits political contributions by labor unions that have collective bargaining agreements with state or local governments. The initiative attempts to silence the voice of working families in legislation and in politics by banning the use of union dues for legislative and political advocacy.
Colorado voters will also vote on a “right to work” ballot initiative in November. “Right to work” actually has nothing to do with a right to a job or employment. The initiative would allow nonmember workers to get all the benefits of union membership and pay nothing, while forcing unions and their members to foot the bill for those not willing to pay their share.
Ballot initiatives that are out of touch with mainstream values like fairness, opportunity and freedom will be a tough sell, but don’t underestimate the Right’s power to divide and distract voters.
2 Howard Fischer, “Foes say petition circulators use illegal means,” East Valley Tribune, June 10, 2008.
3 Scott Lea, “Group Claims Illegal Petitioning,” KPTM News.