Ballot measures 101: Will they boost voter turnout in Election 2010?
So far in Election 2010, voters in 35 states will confront 149 citizen-backed initiatives and referendums. Evidence is mixed on how ballot measures affect voter turnout.
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However, there are a few common threads between various states' ballot measures. In a challenge to the health-care reform law Congress passed earlier this year, residents of Arizona and Colorado will vote on state constitutional amendments to disallow mandatory participation in health insurance. Arizona and Colorado also join California and South Dakota with initiatives that would, to varying degrees, decriminalize marijuana. California's Proposition 19 is the most radical, mandating full legalization, while the others concern medical marijuana use. And with two-thirds of Americans concerned about government spending, according to an August Reuters/Ipsos poll, four states – Colorado, Florida, Oklahoma, and Washington – have ballot measures about limiting public borrowing and expenditures. The Florida question is a nonbinding resolution on whether the US Constitution should have a balanced-budget amendment.Skip to next paragraph
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In Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and Montana, voters will decide whether to call a state constitutional convention. The states' current constitutions automatically trigger these ballot questions at certain intervals, and voters have never acted upon them. But "tea party" activism and general displeasure with the status quo might push some voters to consider a rare experiment with American democracy. The last state to rewrite its constitution in a popular convention was Louisiana, in 1973 and 1974.
What is the success rate of ballot measures?
In the past 10 general elections dating back to 1990, voters approved 1,204 of 1,943 measures that appeared on state ballots. That 62 percent success rate has stayed fairly constant. Only once in that period did fewer than half of the ballot measures pass: in the 1990 election, when 42 percent succeeded. The highest rate of ballot measure passage in that period was in 1998, when 175 of 236 proposed ballot questions – 74 percent – got voters' seal of approval.
Do ballot measures affect voter turnout?
In 2004, the Republican Party supported initiatives to outlaw gay marriage in a number of battleground states, in the hope that the hot-button social issue would entice evangelical members of the Republican base to turn out in greater numbers. Since then, there has been an element of political strategy to statewide ballot measures, with both parties trying to figure out which issues will motivate their strongest supporters to go to the polls. Studies by American political scientists show that ballot measures increase voter turnout, especially in nonpresidential elections, when citizens tend to be less engaged in election news.
However, it is unclear exactly who is motivated to vote by ballot measures. Earlier this year, Joshua Green of The Atlantic suggested that marijuana legalization initiatives in California and elsewhere might help Democratic candidates by boosting liberal turnout in the general election. But even though signature-gathering suggests a certain level of popular support in favor of most initiatives, Mr. Green later noted that some ballot measures could motivate opponents more than supporters. Studies have not conclusively shown that one or the other is necessarily true.