State ballot initiatives may play large role in '04 elections

Beneath the surface of congressional battles raging across the nation are a host of state initiative campaigns that will have a dramatic impact on voter turnout — and could affect the outcomes of numerous House and Senate contests.

Republican and Democratic pollsters agree that candidates can engage certain constituents who may not otherwise vote and increase voter turnout on grassroots issues such as school choice, minimum wage and same-sex marriage.

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Candidates will do better to increase voter turnout by paying attention to the initiatives, says pundit Kellyanne Conway.

However, some candidates are unaware of what measures will appear on the ballot in November.

“Political candidates fool themselves into thinking campaigns are about the candidates and not the issues,” said Kellyanne Conway, president and CEO of The Polling Co., a market-research and consulting firm that focuses on public opinion.

“Initiatives require a certain number of signatures to even get on a ballot, so obviously these issues are important to a lot of people,” Conway said. “A candidate that ignores an initiative on a ballot that shares his or her name does so to their own peril.”

“Candidates hate ballot initiatives because they skew voter turnout and create competition for money, interests and votes,” said GOP pollster and Hill columnist David Hill. “I think direct democracy is more of a Western idea,” Hill said, explaining that Arizona, Colorado, California and Oregon are among some of the biggest ballot-initiative states.

Hill agreed that ballot measures are politically polarizing. “There has always been a belief that when you put a measure like raising the minimum wage or anything that would help blue-collar workers on a ballot it would bring more Democrats to the polls and actually hurt Republicans.”

Such could be the case in Florida’s tight Senate race this year between Mel Martinez (R) and Betty Castor (D), where an amendment to raise the minimum wage has become a divisive issue between the candidates. “While Betty Castor supports raising [the] minimum wage, Mel Martinez does not,” said Castor’s communications director, Matt Burgess.

Floridians for All PAC, which is sponsoring the minimum-wage measure, has raised $1.1 million since July 2003 for the ballot initiative. The measure seeks to raise the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour.

The amount of money behind these initiatives varies widely but is predominantly raised by businesses with a political stake in them.

For instance, Floridians for a Level Playing Field has raised $11.2 million since March 2000 to sponsor an initiative that would allow for more slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

And in Michigan, Detroit casino operators are pouring tons of money into defeating the legalization of slot machines in venues other than their own, while racetrack owners are dumping their funds into making sure the initiative passes.

The bulk of the money surrounding these initiatives is spent in the post-election period, Conway said, when legal challenges are brought and various groups are forced to convince state and appeals courts of why certain initiatives should become laws.

In Arizona’s 1st District, where incumbent Rep. Rick Renzi (R) is running in a tight race against Democrat Paul Babbitt, neither candidate is paying much attention to an immigration ballot initiative this year — even though immigration is a hot-button issue in the state.

Proposition 200 would require people to show proof of citizenship in order to vote and prove legal residency in order to receive a public benefit. The measure fails to explain exactly which benefits would be affected.

“Fear and uncertainty about an issue will make people vote no because they just don’t understand what the ballot is asking,” Hill said.

In Michigan’s heavily conservative 11th District, a ballot proposal to alter the state’s gay marriage policy is proving to be a divisive issue in the race between incumbent Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R) and Democrat Phillip Truran.

“If passed, this would definitely be a defeat for Republicans,” Hill said. The same-sex-marriage initiative will mobilize passionate conservatives, he added, who wish to see the measure defeated.

McCotter supports President Bush’s effort to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Truran said he thinks the 11th District race will not be affected by the state’s same-sex-marriage initiative.

“I think Republicans are making this a wedge issue, and it shouldn’t be,” Truran said. “Honestly, the issues here are jobs, healthcare and the war in Iraq, and these are the things that will ultimately affect the election.”