WASHINGTON – If this year's election is all about turnout, then gay marriage (search), marijuana and the minimum wage might just serve as bait to lure voters in key battleground states to the polls on Tuesday.
A total of 163 measures are on the ballots in 35 states. Among some of the more controversial are a measure that would give state stem-cell research labs $3 billion in California — which is expected to pass — and a Colorado initiative that would scrap their "winner-take-all" presidential electoral system and instead award each of its nine electors based on the percentage of the popular vote won by the candidates. This measure, which would apply retroactively to the 2004 election, was losing in recent surveys.
But gay marriage is the issue that is dominating ballots across the states.
Michigan, Oregon and Ohio — three pivotal states — are among 11 states with ballot referendums calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
"I personally think the marriage initiatives are the most important this year because there is so many of them and some of them are in battleground states like Ohio and Michigan," said John G. Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute (search) at the University of Southern California Law School.
"If it drives turnout, in some ways it could have an effect on the presidential election," he added.
Voters in Mississippi, Montana and Oregon will decide whether they want to change their state constitutions to ban marriage of homosexual couples. Other state initiatives go further, banning state-recognized civil unions between gays in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Utah, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio.
While presidential battleground states are affected by the marriage amendment momentum, polls show the initiatives winning in all of the states. Hotly contested Senate and House races in some of these places, like Oklahoma, Georgia and Kentucky, could benefit from the excitement, too.
Matsusaka said Bush and the Republicans would benefit the most, considering that Christian conservatives are mainly behind the effort.
"It's the church, people of faith that have been behind this for years," said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values (search) in Ohio, and a longtime activist seeking to prevent gay marriages.
He dismissed suggestions that the ballot initiatives were being used to turn out evangelical Christians for Bush.
"I did not choose this timing. This was dictated to us by the Massachusetts Supreme Court," he said, referring to a March ruling that said the state constitution allows for gay marriage and told the state legislature to legalize it. "This is all about marriage for us. If it helps [Bush] then so be it."
Seth Kilborn of the pro-gay marriage Human Rights Campaign (search), said his organization isn't going to accept the bans without a fight. They have dumped their resources into Oregon, Ohio and Michigan, hoping to capitalize on more hopeful polls and the battleground momentum.
"We are fully engaged but we don't have any illusions here," said Kilborn. "I am, of course, always hoping to be pleasantly surprised on Election Day."
One demographic group, however, could cross over and oppose gay marriage as well as the incumbent president. African-American voters may come out strong for the gay marriage ban at the urging of their churches, only to vote for the Democrat for president.
"That's one of the fascinating things about this," said Matsusaka.
Florida and the Minimum Wage
Aside from being a hotbed of controversy, Florida's 27 electoral votes are critical to Bush and Kerry. The push is on to bring out Democratic voters to turn the Florida tide, which in these final days appears to give Bush a 0.8 lead among an average of polls taken between Oct. 27 and Oct. 31, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
A key Senate race may help. Democrat Betty Castor is slugging it out with Republican Mel Martinez for the seat left open by retiring Bob Graham. Castor has seized on one of Florida's four ballot initiatives — supporting a raise in the minimum wage by one dollar to $6.15 — to boost her popularity with voters and turn out Democrats.
"Low-income voters are being mobilized in support of the minimum wage," said Kristina Wilfore of the Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center (search). "These voters are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than a Republican."
Supporters contend the wage increase could increase pay for at least 400,000 Florida workers.
But Martinez, despite the popularity of the initiative, is sticking to his guns and opposing it, saying the wage hike would hurt the state's economy.
"When the minimum wage goes up and it is imposed by government, unfortunately, there will be fewer jobs available,'' Martinez said.
RealClearPolitics.com gives Castor an average 0.5 percent lead among polls taken in the last week.
Rolling Up the Pot Vote
If Alaska passes its third attempt to decriminalize marijuana possession, it will be the first state to regulate pot, like alcohol, for users age 21 and older. It already joins eight other states that have some form of a medicinal marijuana law (search), granting possession privileges to ill patients, though the federal government still considers any marijuana possession a punishable offense.
"Why would you prohibit marijuana in a society where you allow the consumption of things such as alcohol and tobacco?" asked Tim Hinterberger, a professor of neural anatomy and a sponsor of the Alaska ballot measure, who said the state would still be able to ban the use of pot by minors, tax it and still punish people who use it illegally, like driving while impaired.
But recent polls have the measure losing, though by widely varying degrees. Opponents say legalizing pot will be dangerous and a burden on society.
In Montana, 58 percent of voters are supporting a measure to allow patients access to medical marijuana. A measure in Oregon, which would expand its existing medicinal marijuana law to provide for state-run pot dispensaries, is trailing 52 percent to 34 percent in a recent poll but its supporters are upbeat.
The Bush administration, however, hopes each of the initiatives fail. Jennifer de Vallance, spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (search), said federal drug officials have been invited by the opposition in each of the three states to speak to crowds about the dangers of marijuana use.
"We don't tell you how to vote — this is the decision of the people in the states — but you need to know the facts," said de Vallance. "We are able to give the local people more of a forum in the media and in the public eye to campaign against it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.