Bite the Ballot

For years conservatives had a corner on ballot initiatives. Think of California's infamous Proposition 13, and the anti-tax blitzkrieg that swept after it through 43 states. Think of the anti-choice, anti-gay and anti-environment ballot measures of the last two decades. But 2002 seems to mark a turnaround. "This year it's the liberals' turn," says M. Dane Waters, head of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan resource group with conservative roots. Liberal observers agree. It's impossible to label every measure of the 47 that have qualified so far for this year's ballots as either "liberal" or "conservative," but of those that can be labeled, progressive measures outweigh conservative ones nearly 2-to-1.

Why the lefty surge? "There's been a gradual change in attitude by progressives about using [initiative and referendum procedures] to get their policies enacted," says Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. There's also been a drop in right-wing use of initiatives, which has freed the left to be less defensive and more proactive. But what's provided the greatest impetus for liberal ballot measures is frustration with the country's increasingly conservative state legislatures.

According to Damien Filer, spokes-man for the Florida Coalition to Reduce Class Size, this is what drove his group to the ballot. Its initiative was the brainchild of the charismatic U.S. House candidate Kendrick Meek, who tried to advance the issue as a Democratic member of the Florida Legislature and failed because of Republican opposition. In Oregon, the current initiative to raise the minimum wage comes after several years of legislative foot-dragging on the matter. Bill Zimmerman, a political consultant who heads the Campaign for New Drug Policies and has worked with great success on ballot initiatives for 26 years, puts it this way: "Progressive funders got frustrated seeing the issues they care about thwarted in legislatures or in Congress. They felt their goals could be achieved faster and more efficiently, and that they could generate more public discussion, by getting involved in initiatives."

As Zimmerman's remark suggests, with the heady opportunities of initiative-and-referendum activism come some sobering political realities. Because of the massive amounts of money needed to win an initiative campaign, even grass-roots liberals are finding that financial angels are important players. Tom Knox, the spokesman for an organization called California Yes on Prop 52, says his group's campaign to allow voters to register on election day will be "a tough fight." "What we are doing," he says, "is a threat to the establishment and the status quo." And it probably would be going nowhere if not for the financial backing -- to the tune of more than $1 million thus far -- of a progressive newcomer to initiative campaigns, Rob McKay. Similarly, the same-day-registration measure on the ballot in Colorado is financed by a wealthy young dot-com entrepreneur, Jared Polis.

By contrast, Filer says that his group's wildly popular class-size proposal -- volunteers collected an estimated 50,000 petitions for it well ahead of the deadline -- is woefully underfinanced and could well be defeated by the big money of opponents such as Gov. Jeb Bush and the Associated Industries of Florida, who already are rattling their pocketbooks.

He's right to worry. In Maine, an initially popular ban on forest clear-cutting was defeated in 2000, when the timber industry spent $2.3 million against the environmentalists' $267,000. In Massachusetts, a widely favored universal-health-care measure was defeated the same year, when opponents spent $5.5 million against the proponents' $465,000. According to Wilfore's group, heavy, unmatched spending on the "No" side of an initiative campaign is a very good predictor of the measure's defeat.

Gone are the days when strong-minded folks could run initiatives out of musty church basements with little or no resources. "Let's not be naive," says Zimmerman, who has won 12 of 13 recent drug-policy initiatives and has three more on ballots this year. "Initiatives require capital and labor." His heavily funded operation conducts polls in each state to determine how to frame an initiative in order to increase its popularity. "Our initiatives are won in the drafting stage," he asserts. Zimmerman's staff identifies state-based activists, erects local organizations, helps them develop specific campaign strategies and provides most of the cash to implement them. Since the drug-reform movement took to initiatives in 1996, it has spent $15 million, about 75 percent of which has come from three individuals: billionaire philanthropist George Soros, insurance executive Peter Lewis and University of Phoenix founder John Sperling.

Some observers, such as Jennie Drage Bowser, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislators, worry that the initiative process, whether dominated by the left or the right, has become a way for a minority to impose its views on the majority. Particularly in an off-year election for which few voters turn out, initiatives can be won by stirring up a small minority indeed. And it can be a far smaller minority that does the stirring. Bowser cites initiatives to ban bilingual education that have cropped up on ballots this year in Colorado and Massachusetts. All are promoted by one wealthy Californian, Ron Unz, who's had success with similar measures elsewhere in past years.

Turning to initiatives and referendums to advance the progressive agenda is not an untroubling strategy. Nor is it sure to work. In the last hundred years, only 40 percent of initiatives have passed, and now that many states require ballot measures to include a statement of the initiative's fiscal impact, deficit worries may dampen voters' enthusiasm for even the most popular policies. Moreover, legislatures and courts have been known to thumb their noses at voters' decisions. In Massachusetts, for example, where initiatives cannot appropriate money, the Legislature has never provided sufficient funding to implement a campaign-finance initiative that passed with 67 percent of the vote in 1998.

Still, in an era when even left-of-center politics are having a tough time, initiatives open another arena in which progressives can compete -- and sometimes win. In Wilfore's words, they're a "citizens' tool" that we ought to be using.