In 2004, the Right deployed state ballot initiatives opposing gay marriage to pull out socially conservative voters on Election Day. While this tactic apparently only enjoyed success in the key state of Ohio, it nonetheless helped frame the national election, provided right-wing candidates with a distinct message, and primed voters to support candidates who supported the marriage bans. The Right is running with the issue again this year, while also appealing to economically conservative voters with initiatives “protecting” taxpayers, opposing eminent domain, and cutting education spending.
The past five years have seen a seismic shift in the use of initiatives, which are experiments in direct democracy won by reformers a century ago. They allow citizens to push for a popular vote on a key issue in their state either by gathering voter signatures — a Citizen’s Initiative — or by winning interest from the state legislature — a referendum. Big business’s embrace of these mechanisms defies their populist roots. And as more national organizations on the Right and Left deploy them strategically to boost voter turnout, build campaign coffers, or generate support for an issue, ballot measures are losing their local flavor and becoming homogenized across the country.
Among the ballot attempts on the Left this year: increases in the minimum wage (in six states — Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio), and reversing South Dakota’s abortion ban.
Here is a roundup of the ballot initiatives on the Right, courtesy of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, D.C. As of press time, it looks like the Right will have to find more promising ways to get out the vote.
TABOR stands for the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a policy gimmick designed to shrink state government through a constitutional amendment that must be approved by voters. TABOR’s proponents are national anti-tax ideologues like Grover Norquist, Dick Armey, and Howard Rick from Americans for Limited Government, who seek to “drown government in a bathtub” through a simplistic formula of tying the budget to inflation and population growth.
TABOR laws would impose a cap on the revenue the state is allowed to spend each year; any excess must be returned to taxpayers. Norquist’s intention to push TABOR through state legislatures in 41 states has failed miserably. After it was rejected in a bi-partisan fashion in 24 legislative committees in 2005, advocates turned to ballot initiatives.
After trying to gather enough signatures in eight states, they only succeeded in Maine, although Rhode Island’s governor referred a non-binding measure to the ballot. TABOR was kicked off the ballot in Missouri and Ohio. In Oklahoma, 56,000 of the signatures in support of the initiative proved invalid, so the state will probably take it off the ballot, and fraudulent signature gathering has been reported in Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and Oregon. TABOR still faces stiff legal challenges in several of those states. The grand strategy to “drown government in a bathtub” has truly lost its momentum.
Although the anti-gay marriage campaign sought to prime conservatives to support George W. Bush and conservative candidates around the country in 2004, will it really do the trick this year? Faced with record-low poll numbers for Congress and the President, a war that keeps grinding on, and skyrocketing energy prices, the Right is increasingly overreaching, and the continued strategy to push gay marriage as a leading issue is indicative of their desperation. Most states that will vote on anti-gay marriage measures will see the harshest possible versions of the amendment on the ballot. These strict laws punish many more people than gays and lesbians, outlawing not only gay marriage and civil unions, but all domestic partner benefits.
Marriage discrimination is again a national electoral strategy for the Right, and is already on the ballot (or very likely to be) in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Wisconsin, South Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Activists in Washington failed miserably in their effort to secure the signatures needed for a vote on repealing the non-discrimination law passed recently by the state legislature. In Illinois, they did not submit enough signatures to put even a nonbinding proposal on the 2006 ballot.
Even Republican leaders nationwide have wondered whether this strategy will be enough to save them in the mid-term elections.
This sleeper issue of 2006 is eminent domain, with elements of both the Left and the Right seeking to curb the power of the government to take private property for “public” use. The Left is concerned about the abuse of government power on behalf of business interests. Still the initiatives are being pushed largely by anti-government activists. They are responding to the controversial Kelo v. New London decision of 2006, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local governments could seize property for private enterprises, providing they would use the property for the public good. But the Court’s ruling also makes land use a state issue, and allows states to outlaw this type of eminent domain.
Using the charged atmosphere following Kelo, campaigners are stirring up property rights activists. Anti-Kelo initiatives and referenda are expected to be on the ballot in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, California, Idaho, Montana, and Nevada.
In some cases, property rights zealots are including provisions that echo Oregon’s damaging Proposition 37, passed in 2004, which requires governments to compensate for such regulation of private property as zoning, or else waive the regulation. The effect of this “regulatory takings” provision gives special rights to big landowners and developers, whose demands for compensation are too heavy to be met by local governments. The landowners thus have another avenue to challenge regulations that curb unmitigated growth. This provision (or full ballot measure) is moving in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Montana and Washington.
Another simplistic policy gimmick being pushed nationally is the “65% Solution,” which would remove funding decisions from communities and mandate that 65% of all state education funding be spent “in the classroom.” Funded by Overstock.com entrepreneur Patrick Byrne, the front group behind the measure is called First Class Education. According to their website, “in the classroom” includes not just teacher salaries and classroom expenses, but football teams, field trips, and extra tuition for special needs students. Not included are building repairs, nurses, meals, security personnel, transportation, guidance counselors, or even library services.
65% is moving in states where TABOR is likely to qualify, in order to provide cover for legislators pushing draconian tax limitations to claim they still support education. The measure is also designed to split the education unions between teachers and support staff and divert teacher union money away from funding competitive races. It is on the ballot in Colorado and petitions are circulating in Oklahoma and Oregon. A measure has been filed in Arizona. Activists are mulling a campaign in Ohio, but as yet have not filed a ballot measure. The Florida legislature is very likely to refer it to the ballot (with an amendment that links revisions in class size with the 65% mandate). It’s also being used in Republican gubernatorial primaries in Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Ohio.