NEW YORK – Liberals have gone on the offensive this year in getting voters to make the rules, sponsoring a series of ballot initiatives that were once the province of conservative culture makers.
"I think there's a beginning of a sea change in attitudes on the progressive side," said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal-backed Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
This year’s ballots are likely to carry twice as many liberal as conservative ideas, including allowing marijuana for medical uses in South Dakota and Arizona, money for after-school programs in California -- an initiative sponsored by actor and traditionally GOP supporter Arnold Schwarzenegger -- and an increase in Oregon's minimum wage.
Admittedly, the initiative is a new effort by progressives to counter conservatives at their own game -- one that they have been able to dominate over the years.
"I think that is different than previous elections where we end up spending millions of dollars" fighting initiatives such as anti-choice issues, Wilfore said. "I think, largely, progressives really look at this as an opportunity to use it proactively and stop being on the defense."
But conservative issues are by no means invisible this year, said Jennie Drage Bowser, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Massachusetts, Nebraska and Colorado, a referendum demanding English-only requirements will appear on the ballot. Reinstatement of term limits in Idaho and Oregon and a ban on same-sex marriage in Nevada are also expected to show up.
Initiatives, which can address issues ranging from reducing classroom size to legalizing marijuana, physician-assisted suicide, gas price increases, and changes in the state tax system, are put on the ballot when petitioners gather enough signatures to put the debate before voters to decide whether an issue should become law.
Karen Bailey, state projects manager for Americans for Tax Reform, which opposes all tax increase efforts, said this year's attentive focus on ballot initiatives relates to a number of contentious elections and suffering state budgets, among other things.
Groups are trying to make sure that their states get enough money in a time of economic downturn to continue with vital programs, she said, warning that progressive successes may not be a trend to count on.
"The bottom line is, I think there may be some more attention given to the liberal initiatives right now," Bailey said. "However, I think it’s more of the fact that more people are focusing on it than before."
Of course, not all progressive measures will succeed at the polls, said Daniel Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. Smith said studies show that those who spend more money on the "no" side have more success defeating initiatives than those on the "pro" side trying to get their initiatives passed.
"Progressives shouldn’t go counting off success right yet, as there’s a long way to go in the battle," he said.
Besides the added attention to hot-button issues, putting measures on the ballots helps increase voter turnout as well as create a more politically educated voter pool, experts say.
"It makes [people] pay more attention to politics on a routine basis," said Mark Smith, an assistant political science professor at the University of Washington.
But not everyone thinks that initiatives are good for the masses.
NCSL recently released a report that recommended the legislatures in the 24 states that use initiatives should take another look at the process.
The report found that "opportunities for abuse of the process outweigh its advantages and does not recommend that states adopt the initiative process if they currently do not have one."
The report found that there is growing examples of fraud and often failure of groups to make public their financial involvement in the process, among other things.