The NYTimes discovers the “educative effects” of ballot measures

Crack reporter, Nicholas Confessore, in his story, “Anti-Gay Marriage Group Recommends Creating Tension Between Gays and Blacks,” recounts a classic tale of an interest group trying to use a ballot initiative to drive a wedge into a party’s base.

More than a decade ago, I wrote about the GOP using this tactic in California and Colorado. No time to summarize it here, but here’s a link to my 2001 article, Initiative to Party, with Caroline Tolbert on the topic, and it’s also retold in my book, Educated by Initiative.


Don’t Overlook Off-Year Bellwether Ballot Measures

Election Day 2011 is fast approaching. Most eyes will be focused on the the regularly-scheduled off-year gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, as well as a special gubernatorial election in West Virginia. There are also legislative races Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. Some pundits suggest that the collective results of these off-year races may serve as a bellwether for the 2012 general election.

Equally, if not more important, though, are the results of the referred and initiated statewide measures on the ballot.

Citizens in nine states–Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and Washington–will have the opportunity to cast ballots in October on 34 ballot measures, including a dozen measures put on the ballot by citizen.

In terms of ballot bellwethers, topping all other campaigns is “Issue 2” on the ballot in Ohio. The popular referendum is an effort by citizens to repeal the anti-worker Senate Bill 5 that was signed into law by Governor Kasich. If Issue 2 goes down, it should be interpreted not only as a blow against conservatives in Ohio, but also Republicans pushing anti-worker policies in others states, including Florida, Indiana, New Jersey, and especially Wisconsin.

Social conservatives and pro-choice advocates will be turning their attention south, as Mississippi voters will confront an extreme anti-choice “personhood” amendment. Voters in Colorado have defeated a similar measure. Suffice to say, Mississippi is not Colorado.

The Huffington Post has good overviews of both of these issues:

A third measure to watch out for is a popular referendum in Maine that will overturn a Republican-sponsored law ending same-day voter registration in the state. Same day voter registration is a good governance issue, not a partisan issue, though Republicans in the state seem to think otherwise.  The Sun Journal has an update on the campaign, here: People’s veto probably a close to a slam-dunk.

Finally, anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman in Washington has an initiative on the ballot that fiscal conservatives around the country will be taking stock. Fearful of all things public-infrastructure, his pet-project would cut tolls used to pay for new bridges and highways in the state.  As it has done in the past, the business community has spoken up, joining Democrats and organized labor to oppose Eyman’s latest slash and burn measure, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports:  The Association of Washington Business has come out against the Tim Eyman-sponsored Initiative 1125.

Rather than only reading the tea leaves from the 2011 candidate races, pundits should also consider the results of these ballot measures.  All four measures, as well as several others, will have implications for candidate races in 2012, from state legislative races to campaigns for Congress and the presidency.  As campaign consultants and pundits are increasingly realizing, ballot measures have a range of “educative effects,” as they can ply candidates with salient issues to support or oppose during their campaigns, mobilize turnout, and even prime candidate support.

For more on the scholarship of the “educative effects” of direct democracy, here’s a primer.

Restoring Education funding in Colorado at the Ballot Box

UPDATE: Bright Colorado qualifies as Proposition 103 on the November, 2012 ballot:


Last week supporters of the Bright Colorado initiative submitted over 142,000 signatures in an effort to restore funding to Colorado’s underfunded public education system.

Since the passage in 1992 of the anti-tax constitutional amendment, TABOR, which I profile in my book, Tax Crusaders and the Politics of Direct Democracy, Colorado’s education system has taken a hit.  A huge hit, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents.

K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income dropped from 35th to 49th between 1992 and 2001. Colorado’s K-12 public education funding remains in the bottom quintile of the 50 states. Funding for K-12 public schools has been cut by $600 million over the past three years.  Higher education funding is no better.  It too is one of the stingiest in the country, and support for higher ed has been sliced by nearly half over the past decade.

By returning state tax rates to 1999 levels–which amounts to a 0.1 percentage point increase in the state sales tax and a 0.37 percentage point increase in the personal and corporate income tax rates–Bright Colorado is expected to temporarily generate more than $500 million annually for K-12 and higher education through 2016.

There’s no question that raising revenue in the current economic climate is not easy, but if conducted wisely, the Bright Colorado ballot initiative campaign has a chance.

Wouldn’t it send a strong signal across the country that Colorado means business by restoring its public education system?

Ballot Measure Signature Gathering in CA and Supposed Identity Fraud

The story of a 60-second radio spot airing in Southern California has been riling up some folks. As the Sacramento Bee reports, the ad features a man chastising his wife for signing a ballot initiative petition, warning her that it could lead to “identity theft.” The ad is being paid for by the labor-backed group, “Californians Against Identity Theft.” The president of a state building trades union acknowledged funding the ad.

Of course the claim in the ad, that signing a ballot petition will lead to identity theft, is silly.  The same information–name and address–one voluntarily discloses on a California ballot initiative petition is readily available on-line or in a phone book; most Facebook and other social media profiles provide considerably more personal information than what is required on ballot petition forms. And of course, publicly available state voter files–and the political parties and consultants who purchase them–have all our personal information, and more.

The admonishing radio ad is clearly just the latest innovative attempt by an organization to have citizens think twice before signing a ballot measure petition.  Efforts to dissuade people from signing petitions have been around for years.  Groups in many states have employed “Think Before You Ink” campaigns as a way to inform potential petition signers of the true intent behind what can be misleading or intentionally deceptive ballot measure titles, especially when a ballot petition is in the hands of a professional signature gatherer.

In most states, there are laws making it illegal to use signatures collected on ballot petitions for other purposes than qualifying ballot measures.  In California, the election code goes one step further, prohibiting felons from serving as signature gatherers.

As someone who has scoured the historical record of ballot measure campaigns across the states, I have never come across a case of identity fraud stemming from the signing a ballot petition. On the other hand, fraudulent signature gathering, as I probed in an edited chapter with Todd Donovan, does occur, though this too is rare.

Efforts to encourage and discourage individuals to sign ballot petitions–irrespective of their content–have been around since the beginning of the initiative process more than a century ago.  In Colorado in 1912, for example, Colorado Fuel & Iron–which was owned by George Gay Gould and John D. Rockefeller–wanted to reverse a bill passed in 1911 by the progressive-controlled legislature that mandated a more protective eight-hour work day for miners.  The industrialists paid signature gathers to successfully qualify the popular referendum. It was reported in the press that many of the women who were paid to circulate the ballot petitions admitted that they thought they were soliciting signatures to support (not reverse) an eight-hour work day for miners.  In addition, there was evidence that many of the signatures were forged, as I document in my 2002 Journal of Policy History article (with Joey Lubinski), “Direct Democracy During the Progressive Era: A Crack in the Populist Veneer?

Duplicitous efforts individuals and groups circulating or trying to prevent the qualification of ballot measures continues apace today and states have a compelling interest to regulate the process.  But there’s no harm in the effort by  “Californians Against Identity Theft” to dissuade people from signing ballot petitions.


Why Michele Bachmann may want to rethink her attack on Minimum Wage

Notwithstanding the hypocrisy from a states’ rights standpoint, Bachmann is potentially undermining her support in some key 2012 battleground states. And this goes for the other potential GOP hopefuls as well who are attacking the wildly successful efforts to raise the minimum wage. Beginning with the passage of Prop. 210 in California in 1996, citizens in nine states have approved increasing the minimum wage. These are not just “Blue” states that Republican candidates can dismiss out of hand and not worry about trying to win in  2012. Voters in battleground states of Colorado, Florida, and Ohio, as well as “Red” states Arizona, Missouri, and Montana have approved the measures, some by wide margins. Here they are, with the vote totals:

California, Prop. 210 (1996), 61% approval

Washington, Initiative 688 (1998), 66% approval

Florida, Amendment 5 (2004), 71% approval

Arizona, Prop. 202 (2006), 65% approval

Colorado, Amendment 42, 53% approval

Missouri, Prop. B (2006), 76% approval

Montana, I-151 (2006), 73% approval

Nevada, Question 6 (2004 & 2006), 68% & 69% approval

Ohio, Measure 2 (2006), 57% approval


It’s important to note that the six statewide minimum wage measures on the 2006 ballot also had a major effect on the popular salience of the issue and engendered electoral support for Democratic candidates. My co-authored article in Public Opinion Quarterly on the topic is available here:

Daniel A. Smith and Caroline J. Tolbert. 2010. “Direct Democracy, Public Opinion, and Candidate Choice,” Public Opinion Quarterly 74: 85-108.