Despite the paranoia of liberals and the self-aggrandizement of the religious right in the wake of the 2004 election, John Kerry did not lose because of anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot in 11 states. Polling consistently shows that contrary to myth, ballot initiatives do not drive turnout during presidential elections. What they can do, however, is shape the political conversation and suggest to voters what their policy priorities should be. That makes ballot initiatives uniquely powerful tools.
The process of certifying initiatives for the ballot has long been a dirty one, one which left progressives pulling their hair out as the right scored victory after victory on taxes and a range of culture-war issues. Since the 1990s, national conservative groups such as Americans for Tax Reform and the Federation for American Immigration Reform have advanced their national policy goals by targeting the 24 states that allow citizens to create or overturn laws through a signature-gathering process that qualifies proposals for the ballot. It all looks like the work of a few homegrown activists. The reality is that national organizations frequently provide the strategy, money, and staff.
There have been some high-profile successes: "Civil-rights initiatives" in California, Washington, and Michigan ended affirmative action in college admissions and government contracting. "Marriage protection" amendments, most passed via the ballot, discriminate against same-sex couples in 26 states. The intended results of these initiatives are often antithetical to the language used to promote and pass them; in 2006, Arizona activists cited the prevalence of Spanish to persuade voters to de-fund English-language classes for undocumented immigrants.
But after almost two decades playing defense, there are signs that progressives are finally cozying up to the ballot-initiative process. Six states passed minimum-wage increases at the ballot in 2006, a campaign that dovetailed nicely with the Democrats' message of economic mobility. This year, progressives are advancing initiatives in a handful of battleground states: a law in Colorado that would hold CEOs legally responsible if their companies misbehave; a proposal for funding stem-cell research in Michigan; and a Wisconsin initiative that would require the state to provide every resident with health-care coverage.
Of course, conservatives are pushing their own set of ballot initiatives again this year. The religious right is revisiting its 2006 effort to outlaw abortion in South Dakota. Colorado voters are considering a "personhood" amendment so radical it has divided the anti-abortion rights movement; if passed, the state would define every fertilized egg as a human being with full civil rights. And four states -- California, Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas--are considering anti-gay ballot initiatives.
But some of this year's highest-profile conservative ballot drives have gone down in flames. California businessman Ward Connerly targeted five states for what he termed a "Super Tuesday for Civil Rights" in 2008, but only two, Colorado and Nebraska, have approved his organizers' petitions for anti-affirmative action initiatives. In Arizona, Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a Republican, found that Connerly's petitions contained fraudulent and invalid signatures.
Many believed that 2008 would be the year of the anti-immigrant ballot initiative, a gambit to put the GOP back in touch with its base. Yet less than two months before the election, only two states, Oregon and Missouri, have put immigration on the ballot, both through "English only" initiatives. In Arizona, where just two years ago voters approved four harsh anti-immigrant proposals, the only immigration-related initiative on the ballot this year actually weakens a 2007 law sanctioning employers for hiring undocumented workers. An initiative to deny birthright citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants failed to gain enough signatures to make it onto the ballot.
What happened? Conservatives' abandonment of immigration as a ballot issue reflects the movement's tight coordination of the initiative process. This year, with a Republican candidate like John McCain, co-author of the Senate immigration policy tarred as "amnesty" by the right, immigration is just not the issue conservatives want their base to be thinking about inside the voting booth. Gay marriage and abortion, though? Check.
These are important lessons for progressives to internalize. The ballot is just another weapon in the public-policy wars, one that only conservatives have taken full advantage of thus far. So looking forward, what should progressives put on the ballot in 2010? Living wages? Funding for alternative energy and public transportation? The possibilities are endless, and the winners get to shape what citizens think about as they cast their votes. That is a power too great to cede.