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Ballot initiatives have been in use since the early 1900s: Oregon was the first state to allow citizens to put laws on the ballot. This November, more than 100 ballot initiatives will face voters in 41 states. Issues on the ballot include minimum wage, medical marijuana and gun control. These measures have attracted more than $1 billion in campaign spending this year alone. As both parties use ballot measures to increase voter turnout, corporations are writing initiatives in some of the most expensive races in the nation. Diane and guests discuss the rise in ballot initiatives, who’s funding them and what they mean for the American political process.
- Susan MacManus distinguished professor of political science, University of South Florida
- Josh Levin vice president of programs, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
- Reid Wilson staff writer, The Washington Post; he writes The Post's political tipsheet email called "Read In."
- Norman Ornstein resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; co-author with Thomas Mann of, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This fall more than 100 ballot initiatives will face voters in 41 states. Issues include medical marijuana, voting rights, genetically modified foods. In key political races around the country both parties are using initiatives to drive turnout. In some states corporations are even righting measures to gain tax advantages.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the rise in ballot initiatives, who's funding them, and the effects on the political process, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, Reid Wilson of the Washington Post and Josh Levin of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. I'll look forward to hearing your comments, questions. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Thank you all for being here.
MR. REID WILSONGood morning, Diane.
MR. NORMAN ORNSTEINThanks for having us.
MR. JOSH LEVINGreat to be with, Diane.
REHMThank you. Reid Wilson, tell us about these initiatives. You've got a story online this morning in the Washington Post. How many are they, who's funding them?
WILSONWell, in 41 states around the country there are approximately 125 ballot initiatives. There are some secretaries of state who are still finalizing the paperwork or the certification process on a few. So we don't have a final number, but it's about 125. And there are sort of three categories of these initiatives. In one category there are the minor ones, the technical changes. One state wants to change the name of its state auditor. One state wants to make the lieutenant governor an appointed position, not an elected position, etcetera.
WILSONThings that are just minor changes to the way government operates. The second category is initiatives that are used by political parties to gen up turnout, for a specific way to get voters to the polls in what is otherwise a low-interest mid-term election. And I'd point to initiatives like minimum wage measures in Arkansas and Alaska and a medical marijuana initiative in Florida, which I we're going to talk about later. All three of those are designed to bring specific voters, that is, in two cases, low-income residents, to the polls in Arkansas and Alaska, two states with important Senate races.
WILSONThose low-income voters, if they're going to vote to raise their own minimum wage, they're likely to vote for the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate. In Florida, the younger population who would turn out to vote for a medical marijuana bill, the calculus goes, will stay -- stick around to vote for Governor Charlie Crist, former governor Charlie Crist, who's running to get his old job back, the Democratic nominee.
WILSONThose younger voters interested in showing up, might not be interested in showing up for a candidate, but they sure will to establish medical marijuana. The third category are initiatives that are put forward by special interest groups or corporations, in a lot of cases, that would dramatically or directly impact their bottom lines. In some cases it can be genetically modified food, which big grocery chains and agribusiness don't like and will spend tens of millions of dollars against.
WILSONIn one case in California, there are actually two initiatives on the ballot that would deal with medical malpractice. And in that case you've got trial lawyers on one side spending tens of millions of dollars. And doctors and the healthcare industry on the other side spending tens of millions of dollars. That initiative alone could cost more than $100 million by the time we get to Election Day.
REHMOkay. I want to go to the second category and to Colorado. Tell us what's on the ballot there.
WILSONWell, one of the initiatives in Colorado is Amendment 67. It is an amendment that would define a fetus as a person under the Colorado criminal code. That -- they have a very tear-jerking story out there. A woman was leaving her last pre-natal appointment and she was hit by a drunk driver. At eight months pregnant the fetus was killed, but because the fetus was not covered under Colorado criminal code, the drunk driver was not charged with manslaughter or homicide or whatever he would have been charged with otherwise had the fetus been a baby.
WILSONSo they have put this measure on the ballot now. It's called personhood. That term is very loaded. Personhood measures have failed twice before in Colorado. And now the incumbent U.S. senator, Mark Udall, a first-term Democrat, is using that initiative -- opposing that initiative and bringing it to the forefront because he thinks it will attract young women voters, specifically, who are pro-choice, pro-abortion rights, inspiring them to get to the poll.
REHMHow is he using it?
WILSONWell, he's bringing up personhood at every opportunity he can.
WILSONHis opponent is Congressman Cory Gardner, a Republican who was first elected just a few terms ago.
REHMWho also opposes it.
WILSONWell, he opposes the state version. He has actually signed onto the federal version, which gives Udall and Democrats the opportunity to say, Cory Gardner is in favor of personhood. Virtually all of the advertising that Democrats and Mark Udall have done have targeted Cory Gardner on this issue. So they're using the ballot initiative to draw a big contrast directly between the two candidates.
REHMNorm, give us a history behind these initiatives.
ORNSTEINI'll do that. But I want to start, Diane, with a public service announcement. We are approaching the 35th anniversary of your show. And I just want to say that, you know, in what is a parched desert of discourse, you've provided an oasis that I listen to and participate in. And I hope everybody's who's listening will contribute, as I do, to make sure that effort continues…
ORNSTEIN…for many more years. Having said that, there's some irony here, in a sense. The initiative and referendum process was a product of the progressive era, around the turn of the last century. And it really emerged because of a sense among progressives that special interests, moneyed-interests were dominating the state legislatures. And you had to find a way to get around them. So that third category that Reid talked about, where now we have special interests and money-interests manipulating…
ORNSTEIN…yeah, manipulating the referendum and initiative process shows us that sometimes it doesn't work entirely the way that you want. Now, it's also one of those things where some states have resisted, others have opened up dramatically. For many years, of course, the poster child of initiatives and referendums was California, which had a wide-open process. And it's something that many of us who believe in the institutions have had grave doubts about. You know, you denigrate the legislature, the institutions, the representative process if you say we're going to bypass them completely.
ORNSTEINBut what we've also seen in a place like California is that you can get some of these initiatives that come up. Not only do you have millions, sometimes close to billions spent and high-priced consultants trying to figure out how you can confuse voters by obfuscating the issue so they don't know what a yes vote or a no vote means. But also you can tie the hands of the process. And Proposition 13, the famous one in California, that basically ended up not only bleeding money away from essential services like prisons and education…
REHMBecause what did it say?
ORNSTEINIt put a cap on taxes and made it almost impossible to raise revenues. And it led to huge budget deficits as well. You can put handcuffs, in effect, on the process. You know, along with that, you can find ways to do things that self-interested legislators won't do. So many of the initiatives on the ballot this time, for example, are to open up the redistricting process and take it away from the manipulated process that legislators have done. And we've seen this work effectively and I think quite well in a number of states, including in California.
REHMJosh Levin, how do you decide which ballot initiatives to pursue? Who are your clients?
LEVINWell, we work with partners across the country and especially in the states. They -- the partners will come to us wanting to put, for instance, a minimum wage measure on the ballot. You know, to Norm's point, I think we saw this year in both Michigan and Massachusetts, citizen-driven initiatives to put minimum wage increases on the ballot because the legislature wasn't willing to act.
LEVINIn both of those states, what we saw was the legislature saw that the signatures had been collected, decided to act on their own part, and so the proponents decided not to move forward because their goal had been accomplished. So I think this is another good example of where regular people in the states -- particularly as the great recession comes to an end, but people still aren't feeling comfortable in their lives -- are able to take a little bit of control, act on their own and make a change.
REHMWhat about corporations? Do you put their ballot initiatives forward?
LEVINNo. No. And, you know, there's some really egregious examples of corporations trying to manipulate this process. In Montana this year we saw Charter Communications, the cable company in the state, attempt to do a Constitutional Amendment in the state that would change the way their physical plant and their operations were taxed. They were going to spend a couple million dollars to put this on the ballot. Then they were going to tell the people of Montana that this would lower their cable bills, but what it was really going to do was save them tens of millions of dollars in taxes every year.
LEVINThis was a single corporation that was attempting to change a state constitution for their sole benefit. And we saw that and I think the courts in Montana were about to see that as a case of real abuse of the initiative process.
REHMSo you see ballot initiatives, depending on what they are, as being very valuable and, indeed, imperative.
LEVINAbsolutely. You know, so many people are frustrated with Washington or frustrated with their state legislatures not focusing on the issues that they think are the most important to them. The initiative process gives them the opportunity to go out and collect signatures, put something on the ballot and put it to a vote, allowing them to have a say if their legislatures won't move it.
REHMSo, Norm, how do you respond to that?
ORNSTEINWell, I have a lot of sympathy for that. And particularly because the fact is that state districting processes for the state legislatures are as skewed as much or even more as they are for Congress. And what it means is we're getting people insulated from the larger public opinion within the state. The process that the Framers set in place, what we would hope would happen, which is we elect representatives.
ORNSTEINThe representatives make decisions. If we don't like those decisions we bring in a different group of representatives. It's becoming harder to do. And what's happening is they're being, you know, safe districts, they're being skewed towards an ideological end, but they also don't respond to larger public pressure. You need an outlet. And if you can regulate that outlet enough that it doesn't get abused, then it's a positive thing.
REHMNorm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining us now from Tampa, Fla. is Susan McManus. She's distinguished professor of political science at the University of South Florida, political analyst for WFLA, news channel 8, NBC's affiliate in Tampa. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show," Susan McManus.
MS. SUSAN MCMANUSWell, thank you so much for having me. We survived a primary last night so things are still popping in Florida.
REHMWell now, tell me about Florida because it's now being referred to as a mini California in the number of valid initiatives it's had. Is that the case this year?
MCMANUSNo, it's not. We had a siege a couple of election cycles where we had a lot of ballot initiatives on, you know, the general election ballot. But this year we only have three. And of course the main one is the medical marijuana amendment.
REHMAnd I understand Florida has a unique approval process for ballot initiatives which involves a state supreme court. Talk about how.
MCMANUSThe Florida Supreme Court has the authority to remove a ballot proposal if it is not a single subject and if it's too confusing, the ballot summary is too confusing to the voters. And in the past they have frequently done that and it's created somewhat of tension between the Florida Supreme Court and the Republican-controlled Florida legislature when the court has removed some of the ballot proposals put on the ballot by the legislature.
REHMSo tell us about the medical marijuana ballot. Who's behind it and why?
MCMANUSA very prominent trial lawyer in Florida, John Morgan of Morgan and Morgan fame. he's a huge donor to Democratic Party causes and candidates. He was behind a signature collection drive. He funded it because in Florida, as you know, it takes a large number of signatures to get something on the ballot, around 683,000 plus. And so he funded the signature collection for the petition and successfully got enough. And it was approved by the Supreme Court.
MCMANUSBut from the beginning it was seen by some as a way to boost the possibilities of a Democrat winning the gubernatorial election because John -- Charlie Crist, who had now become a Democrat, was a personal friend of John Morgan. And, by the way, was on his firm's letterhead and is an employee of Morgan and Morgan. And it's seen as a way to spike young voter turnout. If you look back to the presidential election in 2012, it was really the 18- to 29-year-olds who turned out at a higher rate than expected in Florida, and were the most solidly Democrat voting block out there.
MCMANUSSo it's seen as critical to the successes of a Democrat candidate, in this case Charlie Crist, to win statewide is to get young voter turnout at a presidential election year level.
REHMI see. So who opposes it and how do you think it will help or even hurt Charlie Crist?
MCMANUSIt's going to be a battle royale because both sides have a lot of money, millions to spend on advertising for and against the amendment. But John Morgan who's already spent multimillions on getting the signatures through has promised to spend another 4 million, if necessary, on television ads to promote the yes side
MCMANUSOn the opposite side, you have Mr. Adelson from Vegas who's a friend of a very influential Republican in Florida. He has promised to spend over $2 million on the no side. The Florida Medical Association and the Florida Sheriff's Association are both against it. And so it is going to be probably getting almost as much attention, if not more than the governor's race at a certain point.
REHMSo what's your prediction? Is it likely to pass or not?
MCMANUSIt requires a 60 percent plus one in Florida. We, a few years ago, amended the constitution to increase the threshold for passage. The polling right now is showing that if the election were held today it would easily pass. But the election's not today and there is -- has been some erosion of support for -- slight, by people who have been looking at what's happening in Washington and Colorado with children. So I think that's probably the angle the no people are going to use. But all they have to do is bring it down to 60 percent -- less than 60 percent to defeat it.
REHMAnd tell me finally are most Floridians in favor of ballot initiatives?
MCMANUSWe've done a lot of polling at the University of South Florida, and Leadership Florida and Nielsen have done polling over the years asking people about constitutional amendments. And there's two things that they say overwhelmingly. One is that the special interests are behind these things more than people, that it's not really a grassroots thing. There's a huge agreement on that. And secondly, huge agreement that wording on these things is always confusing to people. So that we know.
REHMAll right. Susan McManus. She is professor of political science at the University of South Florida. Thanks for joining us.
MCMANUSIt was truly a pleasure. Thank you.
REHMThank you. And Norm, here we are, Florida with only three initiatives but specified to bring voters out. How much do they succeed?
ORNSTEINThere's some success on things that people see as resonating with their lives. And in this case I suspect it will have an impact. There will be young voters turned out. And my guess is that John Morgan is less interested in whether this initiative gets 60 percent than he is in making sure that among those who turn out that make up the 57 percent or 58 percent are a lot of those young voters.
ORNSTEINSo I -- there's just little doubt that this is not an initiative that's simply coming from a group of people, libertarians and others who just want to have medical marijuana or older people who feel that they need it. It's done for other purposes.
REHMBut it makes you wonder whether Florida's going to be the next California, Reid Wilson.
WILSONIt does, however I think one of the things that Dr. McManus just brought up is pretty fascinating. When we talk about spending in political races, we usually mean money on television, money in the last six weeks to turn out voters or something like that. But she brought up the signature collection. And it takes, in some states like Florida, hundreds of thousands of signatures to get on the ballot. In other states it just takes a few tens of thousands of signatures to get measures on the ballot.
WILSONThe three west coast states have always been -- had the most -- the largest number of initiatives throughout history. In Oregon a few years ago there were so many ballot initiatives that they had to print the voter's guide in two volumes. Instead of actually just handing people one book, they handed them two when Election Day came.
REHMOne book, yeah.
WILSONBut the money that initiatives spend, the pro initiative side spends to get on the ballot in the first place is all about collecting signatures. And in a lot of these states, California, Florida, Arizona as well, collecting signatures -- people pay their signature gatherers per signature. In California a valid signature can cost 4, 5, even $6 to a vendor. And when you've got to get, what is it Josh, 250,000 signatures or something to get on the ballot in California, it might even be more than that, much more than that, that adds up. You can't get on the ballot in California with less than 5 to $10 million.
REHMWell, here's what I want to know, Josh. You heard Norm mention how confusing these ballot initiatives can be. Are they deliberately, in some cases, worded to confuse?
LEVINSometimes they are. And, you know, we're big advocates for clearing up that process and making it easier for voters to understand what the question in hand is and making it easier for voters to feel confident that they are voting the way that they want to, and that the outcome of their vote will be what they're looking for. We think it's really important that there be a translation between the legal ease of state codes and the state constitutions and what's presented to voters on the ballot when they look at it on election day.
REHMHere is an email from David in Michigan. "Hopefully," he says, "your discussion will include the ways, at least here in Michigan, that legislators are keeping the people from having their say through initiatives. The 1964 Michigan Constitution has a provision preventing an initiative if the legislator appropriates funds for a law. The Republican governor, Senate and House are so afraid of the people, they've started adding a couple of bucks to do anything they pass."
WILSONAnd this has happened in Michigan this year. It's happened in Missouri. It's happened in several other states where a group of citizens will gather signatures for a particular ballot initiative. Those signatures will be very clearly headed towards the ballot. They'll have had -- have gathered enough. The legislature will then pass something similar. And the Secretary of State or the elections officials will rule that because the legislature acted, therefore the ballot initiative is moot.
WILSONAnd I think the most striking example happened in Missouri earlier this year where a number of activist groups gathered signatures to get -- to create early voting, to create six weeks of early voting before Election Day on -- for the first time in Missouri history. And then the state legislature went ahead and passed a ballot initiative that created early voting for the first time in state history but it created six days of early voting, not six weeks. And it also only created those six days if the legislature decided to fund them. So that means that the Missouri state legislature might not decide to fund those early days of voting in 2016.
WILSONSo the will of those signature gatherers, that ballot initiative was kicked off the ballot. There will be no vote on whether or not to establish six weeks of early voting because the legislature acted in a much, much smaller fashion.
ORNSTEINWell, and of course one of the things that's happening here, and it's another interesting -- I'll give you a little twist on this. The secretaries of state in most states have been offices that have been off the radar screen almost entirely. These are partisan officials who set rules for elections. And it's basically like having the referee in a football game owning stock in one of the teams.
ORNSTEINAnd now we're seeing in this election, beyond the referendums, an awful lot of effort and money going into the secretary of states' offices. Because what's happened in Missouri and in many other states is you get a sort of unholy alliance between the secretaries of state or the other election officials who rule on some of these things and the legislature operating against what often is a larger public initiative.
ORNSTEINSo the tension between the elected officials and voters here takes place on many different complicated plains. And it -- while I, you know, believe in the legislative process, it's becoming harder and harder to suggest that that's the only way that we ought to be doing this.
REHMWell, exactly. And if you look at Washington and what's happened here, no wonder people feel they have to go another way. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Josh, your group is involved in a ballot measure dual on gun control in Washington State. So what are those two initiatives about? What happens if they both pass?
LEVINWell, we don't know. If they both pass it goes to the courts. But in Washington State Initiative 594 would require background checks on all gun sales. It would close the gun show loophole, it would close loopholes around private sales. And it would simply require that any time a gun was transferred or sold, a background check would be conducted.
LEVINThe NRA and some other organizations put a countermeasure on Initiative 591 which would actually prohibit background checks on guns sales unless there's a uniform national standard. And I think we can all agree that there's no uniform national standard coming any time soon, so essentially it would prohibit all background checks on gun sales. Right now, Initiative 594, the background check initiative looks like it will be quite popular and it will probably pass. But 591, the counter, may pass as well. And that would leave it up to the courts in Washington State.
REHMHow often have you had that happen, Reid?
WILSONIt has happened a few times in U.S. history, however it's never happened in Washington State. So there is no legal precedent. There's no provision of the state code as to what happens if both of them pass. It is likely, in a number of other states, when two of these rival initiatives pass, the courts get involved and they will say that essentially whichever one got the more -- the higher number of yes votes takes precedence over the other one. But that's not guaranteed in this case.
REHMWhat about Washington State's genetically modified foods?
WILSONSo GMO -- Washington State was one of the first states to vote on whether or not to label genetically modified foods. This was a ballot initiative in 2012. It drew huge amounts of spending, nearly $10 million from an organic food company that wanted to label other foods as genetically modified. And then about three times that, maybe more, from organizations like ConAgra and PepsiCo and Coca Cola and sort of the big food groups that use a bunch of GMO foods.
WILSONAnd those groups said that if you require us to label these foods as genetically modified, it will increase our costs and it will, you know, cost more for you to buy groceries and things like that. And the measure failed. There is no labeling of GMO foods in Washington State. However, they have passed in a couple other states. Vermont, in one case, passed a bill and they were so certain that they got -- that they would get sued -- and in fact they did get sued by the big agribusiness companies -- that they included in the initiative I think it was a million and a half dollars for the legal suit to prepare for the eventual legal challenge.
WILSONNow GMO provisions are on the ballot in Oregon and Colorado this year. They're going to draw another -- you know, more millions of dollars in spending from these big groups. And in virtually all cases, the big agribusiness groups like PepsiCo and Coca Cola and ConAgra and people like that will spend that money. They'll spend tens of millions of dollars trying to convince people to vote against this measure.
LEVINAnd I think Reid nailed it there. I think one of the reasons that we're seeing so much more spending on initiatives nationwide is because corporations and companies are realizing that this is going to affect their bottom line. And this tells you how much they think it will. 22 or $32 million in Washington State in 2013, that's a good sense of how much they think their bottom line is threatened by simply having to label foods that have been genetically engineered. If we see the same in Colorado and Oregon, we expect to see some more spending numbers there.
REHMI am feeling helpless as a citizen going to the ballot box if indeed corporations are now putting millions if not billions into what I get to vote on.
ORNSTEINAnd there's another twist in this too, which is that while we have huge problems with disclosure of big money in the campaigns themselves, the standards have been different for referendums and initiatives. And it's actually easier to have secret money going in. So we're going to get a lot of open money coming from these corporations but there's a huge amount coming in and we aren't even going to know where it's coming from. And if you're sitting there with a ballot and you don't even know what the measure's all about, it makes it very tricky.
REHMShort break here. When we come back, you get to weigh in with your calls and comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about ballot initiatives. Reid Wilson, before we go to the phones, just talk a little about the money involved.
WILSONWell, sure. So over the last few years, we've seen a spike in the amount of money spent on ballot initiatives from about $100 million a year at the turn of the century up to -- now this, in 2012, groups for and against ballot initiatives spent something like $930 million. This year, it's likely gonna cross the billion dollar threshold. We've got two initiatives in California that will, together, cost $100 million dollars, so the equivalent of what every -- what was spend on everything at the beginning of the decade.
WILSONAnd in a lot of cases, it's because of the -- of some battles that are set up between corporations. One example that I found in Colorado, Amendment 68, right next to that personhood amendment that we talked about at the top of the hour, is a measure that would allow some resort casinos to be built -- resort-style casinos to be built in the Denver suburbs, all the way south in Pueblo.
WILSONAnd those casinos, the people who want to operate those casinos, are going to spend tens of millions of dollars on this initiative because they want the profits that will come with allowing them to build a resort casino. However, the people who own other casinos in Colorado in the mountain towns are gonna spend tens of millions of dollars against it because who wants to drive into the mountains when you could just gamble away your money at the casino in the Denver suburbs.
WILSONSo the spending -- as corporations get more and more involved in these initiatives, and sometimes they're battling each other. It's not as if it's citizens versus corporations all the time, the spending is going up exponentially. We're gonna have a billion dollar election this year on ballot initiatives alone before we even get to House, Senate, governors races.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phone to Warren, Michigan. Tim, you're on the air.
TIMHi. I wanted to call and I wanted -- here's my comment, basically. I'm one of those paid signature gatherers that you were talking about earlier in the show.
TIMAs a matter of fact, it's kind of funny you mentioned, I helped put both 591 on the ballot in Washington, then I went straight from there and went to Florida and did John Morgan's medical marijuana petition and a water and land legacy. My comment is this. Basically, in these things -- and I don't take these ballot initiatives, by the way, based on my own beliefs. I'll have to admit that one in Washington that I did, my own views are somewhat left of center.
TIMI thought it was a terrible idea. But all I had to do was grow my beard out, look more redneck and the right-wingers signed it and droves.
REHMTalk about the people who collect signatures.
TIMMy comment is that basically, this is virtually impossible to get anything on the ballot unless you pay for it, just like you said earlier. Volunteers will not go out and do it. And, you know, myself, I just do the job because of the travel I get.
REHMI understand. And by the way, somebody called in to correct the 250,000 figure. It's 500,000 in California.
ORNSTEINRight. It's 500,000 in California.
REHMAnd, you know, I mean, you can understand in this economy, you're gonna find a job wherever you can find a job.
LEVINThese are well-paying jobs after all.
REHMAbsolutely. All right. I've got to take this call in West Bloomfield, Michigan, because it's something I wanted to ask about. Lauren, you're on the air.
LAURENGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
LAURENAs a Michigan voter, I'm aware of the two initiatives on the ballot here with regard to wolf hunting and I was under the impression that those were, you know, voter grassroots-sponsored or supported. But I'm wondering whether or not there is any out-of-state or corporate money supporting those initiatives and whether or not what we want is not gonna get on the ballot because one or the other, you know?
REHMGood question. Josh.
LEVINI think that an issue like the wolf hunting or in Maine, the question about bear baiting and hunting bears, those are things that are deeply rooted in those communities and very specific to the states and the issues that they're facing in-state. So most of the time, those are very grassroots. You may have coalitions of hunters or conservationists who get involved, but for the most part, that sort of thing is very citizen driven.
REHMSo do you see, Norm, those more organic kinds of initiatives as being much more representative of the people, even though you're gonna have to get lots of money to get them on there?
ORNSTEINYeah, well, certainly there are gradations of what we would see here, although, of course, you can have something that emerges from the grassroots that is then crassly manipulated by the political forces out there.
ORNSTEINAnd I think you could see the personhood amendment as being one of those. You know, at the same time, there's another category of amendments that I have a little bit of a soft spot for and there's several of them on the ballot this time, which is to change the nature of the political process. So we have, in Oregon, for example, an initiative that would create open top two primaries as they have in California, the kind of thing that we're hoping we will experiment with that may take us away from some of these highly skewed primaries that tilt toward extremist.
ORNSTEINWe have a number of states now that are doing redistricting initiatives to create independent commissions. You're not gonna get those kinds of things emerging from legislatures. And so there are places where you can get both grassroots activity and good government things emerging. But, you know, we're moving into an era now with all of this money, with all of the interest, with clever people who can use a grassroots effort and turn it to their own advantage with the ability to write these things so that people think they're voting for something good and, in fact, they're voting for the opposite where we've got a big problem on our hands, billions of dollars and other things.
REHMWould you like to do away with them altogether?
ORNSTEINNo, I don't think that that's a good idea. I think there should be an outlet, other than a legislative process that, itself, can become either tilted or completely gridlocked where nothing can happen.
REHMThen, how would you regulate these initiatives?
ORNSTEINIt's gonna have to happen state by state. I actually think that you want to have at least a reasonably high threshold to get things on the ballot. When the threshold was lower in California, you know, you would have people going to the ballot and it was basically the size of a Los Angeles telephone directory. You have no idea what kinds of things are there.
ORNSTEINYou want to have some limits of what are put out there. But I think these instances, like in Missouri, where the legislature can manipulate the process to divert away from what voters actually want, the fact that you don't have disclosure of the donors, that you don't have any ability to have a public education campaign so that you actually know what these things do.
ORNSTEINThese are all areas where I hope we would find some movement in a positive direction.
LEVINYeah, another example of that is Montana this year, where they're attempting to do away with election day registration. In Montana, tens of thousands of voters over the last six or eight years have taken advantage of being able to register to vote on election day and then cast their ballot. In fact, in the last gubernatorial election, the margin of victory in the governor's race was actually smaller than the number of people who registered to vote on election day and the legislature is trying to do away with that opportunity for the people in that state.
LEVINSo there are lots of those sort of technical changes that may sound benign, but could have far-reaching effects that people may not expect.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, Bill.
BILLOh, hi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
BILLCan you hear me?
BILLYeah, I just wanted to say, I'm clearly amazed at the length that the Democrats will go to to turn out voters. As the last caller can attest to, he was clearly a Democrat operative working to get these ballot initiatives on the ballot and getting paid to do so. You look at Charlie Crist down in Florida. He's willing to sell out our youth to medical marijuana, which is slippery slope and I think it's been proven that medical marijuana and marijuana use in general is detrimental to young minds and their full development.
BILLAnd yet, the Democrats are willing to put that on the ballot on Florida to turn out the youth vote and then, they're willing to sell out our sovereignty as a nation because they failed to work on border security on our southern border.
WILSONWell, there aren't that many immigration -- as a matter of fact, I think there's only one ballot initiative dealing with immigration here. The interesting thing I thought about the caller who was the paid signature gatherer, is that he had worked on two very diverse initiatives. In one case, in Washington State, he worked on the NRA's version of the gun control bill. 591 is the NRA's version. The 594 is the pro gun control version.
WILSONAnd then, he went to Florida to work on the medical marijuana side. So that sort of demonstrates that, hey, why not? These signature gatherers will go anywhere to get something on the ballot. However, Democrats using ballot initiatives to turn out the vote, you know, this is not new. As a matter of fact, a decade ago, in 2004, the Republican side, the Bush campaign, worked to get bans on same-sex marriage on the ballot in 11 states to gin up turnout among Evangelical voters who would then vote for Bush over John Kerry.
REHMSo what you're saying is it happens all over the place.
WILSONIt certainly does. And yet, there have actually been some academic studies. There was a study out of Western Washington University just after that 2004 election that suggested that those gay marriage bans might not have actually worked. They might not have actually turned people out in a presidential year because basically, everybody's voting already, turnout is so much higher than it is in a midterm.
WILSONOn the other hand, in this midterm election, Democrats might find more success and Republicans in the cases where they decide to put initiatives on the ballot for these purposes because turnout is going to be so much lower than it is in those presidential years.
ORNSTEINI think it's important to say, though, just the presence of a measure on the ballot isn't going to change turnout. It's about the campaigns around them. Are they going and knocking on doors and getting people out to vote? Are they registering new voters? Are the issues playing out in these other campaigns as they are in Colorado or maybe in Arkansas in the Senate race where minimum wage is turning into a big issue.
LEVINYou know, it's also people hate politics, politicians, candidates now. It's harder to motivate them to turn out because there's somebody they really love or even somebody they really hate. So I suspect we're going to see initiatives and referendums used more in midterm elections as a turnout incentive because….
LEVIN...you can get your juices flowing over an issue like marijuana or personhood in a way you can't over a candidate for the Senate.
REHMAll right. To Alex in Ashville, North Carolina. Hi, you're on the air.
ALEXHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
ALEXI was just calling to say that at the beginning of the show I was pretty mixed about, you know, whether or not I was kind of for the ballot initiatives. I mean, a thing that I saw being most important for them was the idea that they would bring more people out to the polls when normally they might stay home if it, you know, wasn't a big presidential year or something.
ALEXBut ultimately, it was the comment you said, Diane, that turned me against them and that was the big money interests that help put them on the ballot, you know. At least, I think with our system of legislators and committees and lobbyists, they get the advantage of getting to hear from experts who, you know, well, I guess in theory, tell you the good and the bad of what this law might do.
ALEXAnd so that's ultimately what swayed me in the other direction so thank you for taking my call.
REHMAnd thanks for calling, Alex. Any comment, Norm?
ORNSTEINThere certainly is a real problem now where you'll get big monied interest coming, not just because they're casinos who have their direct interest at stake, but now, whether it's the Sheldon Adelson's of the world or others who are getting involved in campaigns, we're gonna see more and more of the billionaires and corporations getting into this for more ideological reasons and that's a little troubling.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a call from Benjamin in Olney, Maryland. Hi, you're on the air.
BENJAMINHi, Diane. I heard a comment earlier in the show that somehow the ballot initiative is -- the process is usurping the prerogatives of the legislature. As somebody who prefers marijuana to alcohol and a father of three, it's insulting because polls show that nationally, a majority of people support the legalization of marijuana or at the very least, a plurality.
BENJAMINAnd yet, we have how many U.S. senators supporting legalization? Zero. Politicians in state legislatures don't want to talk about marijuana policy let along legislate about it and yet we have super majorities in most states. I haven't heard much comments on the polling in Florida, but Quinnipiac's poll recently shows 88 percent for medical marijuana in Florida.
WILSONYeah, the vast majority of Floridians in that Quinnipiac poll that he's talking about said they support medical marijuana. And the marijuana question is fascinating around the country because a number of states that are considering some level of legalization, whether it's medical or decriminalization or the flat out legalization, are looking at the two states that have gone to legalization and inspecting their challenges.
WILSONAnd one of the sort of overlooked factors of this is that Colorado and Washington pursued very different paths to get to legalization. Colorado they built a regulatory system entirely from scratch, which is something that really hasn't been done in 80 or 90 years. In Washington State, they treated marijuana like it was alcohol. The state alcohol bureau regulates it and it's -- that has gone less well and it's an interesting -- as these states move forward, the question doesn't become just whether or not we should legalize marijuana, it's how do we regulate it once it's legalized and those other states now are looking to Washington and Colorado to learn a lot of lessons.
REHMAnd finally, Joe in Fort Myers, Florida, wants to know where does all this money go? How is it used? Not just for the collectors of signatures, surely.
WILSONWell, as Josh said, the turnout, the generating turnout for a ballot measure doesn’t just come from putting a ballot on -- or putting a measure on the ballot. It comes from running television advertising. It comes from running full-fledged campaigns in a lot of places. I was down in Pueblo, Colorado, at the state fair a few days ago where they had a big legislative breakfast and there were a number of people advocating various amendments with booths at the state fair.
WILSONI mean, that goes to pay for those things. It goes to pay for literature and, you know, everything that a U.S. Senate campaign would pay for is paid for in a ballot initiative, too.
ORNSTEINThe big winners are local television stations who are just making out like bandits.
ORNSTEINBecause all this money comes to them in the form of advertising. I remember once seeing the books of the ABC's owned and operated stations and the revenues, you know, 22 stations. Revenues were like a flat line for 18 months out of a two-year cycle or 20 months and then they would spike up for the months before an election.
ORNSTEINAnd now, this is even more money, billions of dollars. And then, there are the political consultants who are buying very fancy cars and homes out of their ability to manipulate the process.
REHMAs always, follow...
ORNSTEINAlong with a few public interested types like Josh.
REHM...follow the money is, in fact, the answer. I'm telling you, I, as a citizen, am becoming increasingly concerned about these initiatives and hope that somehow, some way, we can find better regulation for them. Norm Ornstein, Reid Wilson, Josh Levin, thank you all.
WILSONThank you, Diane.
ORNSTEINThanks for having us.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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