Wave of ballot measures this fall veers left

Fifty-three initiatives cover cockfights, class size, marijuana laws, and pigs.

Back in the 1990s, many high-profile citizen ballot initiatives across the country had a Rush Limbaugh conservativism driving them: They aimed to cut taxes, bust up affirmative action, impose term limits, allow school vouchers, and toughen crime policy.

But this year's big initiatives suddenly have a Ralph Nader-like slant: They would provide universal healthcare in Oregon, legalize marijuana in Nevada, institute same-day voter registration in California and Colorado, and even protect pregnant pigs in Florida.

Such is the ebb and flow of America's purest form of democratic governance. This year, even initiatives themselves are getting fresh scrutiny – with several measures aiming to limit their power and scope.

While some conservative initiatives are on this fall's ballots – such as English-immersion plans for students in Massachusetts and Colorado – the shift toward more liberal initiatives is dramatic. The most-common kinds of measures aim to reform drug policy, education, elections, gambling, fiscal policy, and to protect animals, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute. "The progressive issues have come to the surface," says Dane Waters, president of the conservative Washington-based group.

The liberal shift

One reason for the shift: Republicans have steadily gained power in state governments over the past decade, leaving Democrats and other liberals to resort to ballot initiatives to pursue their agenda. In fact, in 19 of the 24 states that allow initiatives, Republicans control either the governor's office or the legislature or both.

Another simple reason for the shift: Some of the conservative measures of the 1990s have simply run their course. "You can't impose term limits over and over again," observes Kristina Wilfore, head of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington.

Also, after a decade of seeing conservative measures succeed at the ballot box, liberals have geared up. "Progressives have been slow to come to the table," says Ms. Kilgore. But in the past couple of years, she says, they've realized that "love it or hate it, the initiative process isn't going away – so let's use it for progressive interests." Her Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, formed in 1998, is one sign of the new vigor.

Take drug policy. There's the high-profile bid in Nevada to legalize possession of up to three ounces of marijuana. That measure, like many on both ends of the political spectrum, is being pushed by a national group aiming to turn the tide in its favor state by state.

There's also a bid in Arizona to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. In Ohio, voters will decide whether to require drug treatment – rather than incarceration – for nonviolent drug offenders.

In South Dakota, two initiatives would affect drug policy. One would legalize the growing, selling, and buying of industrial hemp, a marijuana-related plant used to make fabrics, clothes, and other items. The other would enable criminal defendants to argue that the law they're being tried under is bad public policy – and therefore that they shouldn't be convicted. Drug-reform advocates support this plan – and envision this argument being made about drug laws.

Gambling expansion efforts – typically opposed by conservative church groups – include allowing a lottery in Tennessee and letting North Dakota join a multistate lottery.

Animal-rights initiatives include the Florida plan to ban small crates for pregnant sows used by pork producers. And if the polls are right, Oklahomans will ban the traditional pastime of cockfighting – something the legislature has refused to do for years. An Arkansas plan would boost penalties for animal cruelty.

Election-reform efforts include California and Colorado measures to allow voter registration on election day. This would bring more people to the polls, which typically helps Democrats. Critics say it will create chaos.

This year's education initiatives are less ideologically clear-cut. Debates are raging in Colorado and Massachusetts about phasing out bilingual education in favor of English-immersion programs. California and Arizona have already passed such measures.

Florida's voters will decide whether to mandate smaller class sizes – and provide prekindergarten classes for every child in the state. A California measure to expand after-school programs has gotten cash and cachet from actor-cum-politico Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Initiatives on initiatives

Despite the wide variety of initiatives this year, there is evidence of a drop off in government by the ballot box. This year's total of 53 initiatives represents a 30-percent drop from 2000 and the fewest since 1986.

Indeed, citizen-led campaigns are getting more costly and complicated than ever – state legislatures, courts, and even citizen groups are getting increasingly hostile to the strategy.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Oregon, where one measure would ban clipboard-toting signature gatherers from being paid per signature. That practice results in overzealous tactics, supporters say. But critics think the measure would make the democratic process more costly.

Grass-roots groups have discovered that it is cheaper to prevent an idea from getting onto the ballot – rather than waging a costly "vote no" campaign. In Oregon, opponents torpedoed an antiunion measure, in part by shadowing signature gatherers and encouraging citizens to "Think before you ink" – to carefully weigh signing the petition.

In all, "the cost of conducting a signature campaign," says University of Virginia initiatives expert Howard Ernst, "has never been higher."

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