Moose and other matters on the ballot

The dramatic upsurge in initiative and referendum activity during 1982 produced such a wealth of raw data that analysts are still sorting through the results to determine what it all meant. With all the interest the results hold for journalists and students of politics, initiative activists themselves - both liberals and conservatives - are going ahead with plans for major ballot campaigns in 1983 and 1984.

During 1983 there will be a great deal more ballot activity than most Americans suspect. In fact, at least one proposal has already qualified for the November 1983 ballot. In Maine, a group calling itself Save Maine's Only Official State Animal (SMOOSA) has already gathered the 37,026 valid signatures needed. The SMOOSA initiative would ban moose hunting in the state.

There are additional initiatives brewing in the small number of states which allow the citizen-initiated laws during odd years. One drive now starting in Ohio would raise the drinking age from 19 to 21. Political analysts who believe the upsurge in initiative activity is here to stay will watch closely to compare the number of initiatives which qualify for the ballot in 1983 with the number which qualified in 1981.

Two years ago there were a total of 48 ballot measures before voters in 12 states and the District of Columbia. While six of those proposals were initiatives, 42 were placed before voters by the state legislatures.

In those states which allow placement of initiatives only during even-numbered years, a number of familiar themes emerge from the initiative drives gearing up for 1984. Voters will almost certainly face a brand new tax-slashing initiative from tax crusaders Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis in California. Floridians for Tax Relief are pushing a tax-cutting measure, while several groups in Oregon have started circulating property tax reduction proposals patterned after an initiative which failed narrowly in 1982. Pro-gambling drives have started in California and Florida. Utah utility consumer activists are pushing an initiative to change the state's appointed utilities commission into a popularly elected one. Most observers expect at least a few new proposals on the nuclear freeze model.

What messages, if any, do the 1982 results hold for initiative and referendum activists in 1983 and 1984? Voters in 42 states and the District of Columbia faced a total of 237 ballot questions on Nov. 2.

Referred measures are those questions which come to the ballot as a result of legislative action. Of 237 measures on statewide ballots, a total of 186 (78.5 percent) were referred. Of these, 133 (71.5 percent) passed, while only 53 (28.5 percent) failed.

Initiatives are those questions which come to the ballot as a result of citizen petitioning. They totaled 51 (21.5 percent) of the 237 measures on statewide ballots in November. Of those 51 questions, 20 (39.2 percent) passed, while 31 (60.8 percent) suffered voter rejection.

At the risk of oversimplification, the sharp differences in the win/loss ratios of the two types of proposals are not surprising because, generally speaking, referred measures are noncontroversial, while initiatives are often highly contentious.

Of the 15 most popular ballot measures around the country on Nov. 2, none were initiatives. Ten of the proposals were relatively nonideological in impact, while five might be described as having center-right orientations.

Of these five proposals, two dealt with taxation. Specifically, voters in Tennessee and West Virginia gave overwhelming approval to proposals giving targeted property tax relief to elderly and disabled citizens. There were a number of anti-crime measures which passed in November. Three of these - bail toughening amendments in Illinois, Arizona, and Colorado - fell into the ''most popular'' category, passing with 80-86 percent approval.

Of the 16 most unpopular ballot measures on Nov. 2, eight were referred measures while eight were initiatives. Overall, eight were left-of-center in orientation. These included the bottle bill initiatives in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington; the Ohio initiative which would have created an elected public utilities commission; tax increase proposals in North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington; and a Washington initiative designed to severely limit interest rates on retail sales.

On the other hand, conservative supporters of nuclear energy found one proposal in Montana - which would have allowed the disposal of low-level radioactive waste - among the most unpopular ballot proposals of 1982.

None of this analysis should be overstated. As usual, corporate interests were able to spend heavily in order to defeat proposals seeking to increase regulation of business. Only on the freeze proposals did liberal spending heavily outweigh conservative spending. Freeze proponents spent at least $2.5 million to promote the ballot measures, while opponents spent only $100,000. Nationwide, combining all the state and local freeze proposals, the freeze concept won 58.87 percent to 41.13 percent. A total of 19,148,417 Americans cast votes on freeze proposals, the closest thing the country has had to a national referendum on anything.

If new or redefined environmental and antibusiness proposals are developed along the lines of the freeze model, left-of-center initiative activists might begin to enjoy even greater successes. At the same time, the message of 1982 was generally conservative on ballot questions.

In the next two years, it is certain that liberal initiative activists will build upon the impressive showing they made in securing ballot status for their proposals in 1982. Whether they will be able to improve upon their win/loss ratio is another question.

Conservative initiative activists, on the other hand, can look at the 1982 ballot and say they did better than they might have expected. Assuming tax reduction and other conservative initiative activists gear up in the months ahead, 1984 should bring another upsurge in the utilization of participatory democracy.

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