Ballot Measures: Democrats Fail to Drive Turnout

In midterm elections, parties can use ballot measures to inspire their voters to come to the polls. Republicans are trying to do that this year. Democrats aren't.
by | September 15, 2010

I happened to be reading through a list of all of the ballot measures voters will consider around the country this year and something struck me: Democrats made almost no effort to use measures to achieve their policy objectives or  to nudge their voters to show up to vote.

While I'd describe this as a relatively quiet year for ballot measures, there are still plenty of measures aimed at achieving conservative objectives. We have proposals to block provisions of federal health care reform, an effort in California to stall the state's landmark global warming law, measures to cut taxes or make tax increases less likely, measures to make unionization more difficult, and so forth. Even measures articulating the rights of hunters (on the ballot in five states!) could draw conservative voters to the polls.

It's worth noting that while some of these measures have important policy implications (the California global warming measure is a big one), many of them don't. There are enough legal challenges to the health care reform law, for example, that a new state opposing it won't do a thing. But, the measures still serve the purpose of motivating partisans and framing the issues.

For whatever reason, Democrats have long seemed less adept or less inclined to use the ballot measure process. They've done an even lousier job than usual this year. Of all of the ballot measures around the country, the only ones that seem clearly designed to achieve progressive policy goals on hot-button issues are the efforts in Washington to create an income tax and a few measures on marijuana (with California's being most prominent). Maybe I'm missing something, but that's all I see.

Of course, the idea that ballot measures can drive turnout is at least somewhat controversial. But, I think the case is much stronger in a midterm year than a presidential year (and stronger still for elections that typically have even lower turnout like a primary). In a year in which Democrats are very worried about turnout, I'm surprised the party didn't at least try.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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