Ballot Initiatives Seek to Boost Turnout

Initiatives for dozens of issues will be on ballots across the country this November, but many of the proposals are designed to do more than advance narrow causes -- they aim to boost voter turnout at the polls for this year's tight election.

"We are seeing the most activity happen in battleground states where initiatives are not only put forward because of the issue, but also because of the impact on turnout," said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (search), which aids progressive ballot measures.

Initiatives are a way to register new voters and energize old ones. They help bring wedge-issue voters to the polls, and that can make the difference in hotly contested states.

Among the initiatives that could boost turnout for either the Republicans or Democrats this year is a measure in Arizona to limit benefits for illegal aliens, a proposal in Florida and Nevada to increase the minimum wage and a referendum in Michigan to defend affirmative action.

History shows the impact these measures can have. In 1998, a minimum wage initiative in Washington resulted in a 4 percentage point increase in voting — an uptick that benefited Democrats. As a result, the state House and Senate switched to Democratic control.

That victory, Wilfore said, is part of the inspiration behind the minimum wage initiatives in Florida and Nevada this year.

But ballot initiatives are not the domain of the left only.

"Conservatives on a whole try to push tax initiatives, and those really have a habit of drawing out the vote," said Elizabeth Hackett, state coalitions manager for Americans for Tax Reform (search). Other issues such as gun rights have been helpful in the past, Hackett said, citing measures in 2000 in Colorado and Oregon.

She said she expected anti-tax initiatives such as the "Axe the Tax" (search) measure in Nevada will provide a boost for President Bush. She added that liberal measures can also drive conservatives to the polls.

"Fourteen states are pushing health care, and we are energizing our base to say you don’t want this. Vote against this," Hackett said.

With the backing of more than 280,000 signatures, a Washington state initiative to halt the dumping of nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (search) has qualified for the ballot. Organizers registered thousands of new voters and say the initiative will boost turnout.

"We expect that it will certainly have an effect on races up and down the ballot," said Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest (search), which is spearheading the initiative.

Asked whether he hoped the initiative would have an impact on the presidential race, Pollet said "certainly," adding that the Bush administration has attempted to roll back the cleanup of nuclear waste.

Some initiative activists are as focused on the presidential election as they are on getting their measure passed, but for others it is all about the narrow issue, Wilfore said.

"It depends on the issue and the kind of coalition. There are some who it's all about that issue, and if there are some residual effects, alright. [For] others it's really secondary."

Proponents of a Georgia ballot measure to ban gay marriage say the presidential race is not part of their agenda.

"This issue transcends your general definition of a voter," said Sadie Fields, state chairman of the Christian Coalition of Georgia (search). The presidential race "was never even mentioned. If that’s a byproduct, then so be it. What we are fighting is the radical homosexual agenda."

Fields added that among the efforts in the Christian Coalition's campaign is a voter registration drive seeking to register 100,000 new voters. Such a campaign could not help but influence other races and issues up and down the ballot.

Kathy McKee, director of Protect Arizona Now (search), an initiative to limit benefits received by illegal immigrants, said that boosting Bush or John Kerry is the furthest thing from her mind. Asked whether the presidential race was motivating the initiative, she cited disappointment with Bush administration policies. "I can guarantee you that’s not the case for our initiative," McKee said. 

However, McKee said that if the initiative qualifies for the ballot, it will likely boost turnout, and the initiative's 2,000 volunteers have registered many voters.

Ballot activity may increase this year because of the soft money ban, as activists seek ways to spend political dollars. New campaign finance laws (search) mean that raising and spending money for these issues may be easier than for candidates. Initiatives "are potentially a soft money loophole," and parties will make the most out of issue advertising, Wilfore said.

Issue advertising will also help frame the debate during this election year. With minimum wage increases championed in some states, immigrant rights issues debated in others and environmental concerns being hashed out in others, the debates will be a big part of the dialogue during the presidential campaign, which is exactly what initiative activists want.

Because filing deadlines have not passed in all states, it is too early to know how many initiatives will appear on Nov. 2. But ballot activity is heavier this year because it is a presidential election year, and some states do not allow ballot initiatives in off-year elections. Wilfore said she expected between 70 and 90 initiatives to qualify across the country for the ballot this year.