Pro-pot legalization advocates have acknowledged a ballot strategy that will place a greater emphasis on 2016. | AP Photo
Progressives, frustrated at gridlock in Washington and at the state level, are planning a major ballot-initiative push across the country as they bank on a likely favorable electorate in 2016.
Groups supporting marijuana legalization, background checks on firearms and raising the minimum wage told POLITICO to expect a larger slate of ballot propositions in 2016 than during the past several election cycles.
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In particular, organizations are confident that after achieving success on progressive ballot initiatives with an older and more conservative bloc of voters in 2014, the younger and more liberal electorate expected to turn out in the upcoming presidential contest will produce some major triumphs.
It’s widely expected that referendums on gun control, marijuana legalization and economic fairness issues, including paid sick leave and equal pay, will outnumber those in 2012, a sign that liberals are embracing a state-based model that allows them to circumvent legislatures and Congress.
Conservatives, though, are taking notice, and vowing to blunt the momentum, potentially with competing ballot propositions.
Pro-pot legalization advocates have acknowledged a ballot strategy that will place a greater emphasis on 2016, given the significant demographic differences between midterm and presidential years. Younger and minority voters made up a much larger percentage of the voter pool in 2012 than last month’s midterms, when the GOP took back the Senate and made major gains in the House during the lowest-turnout election since 1942.
“Especially with gridlock in Washington and fewer states likely to address the minimum wage legislatively, we’re likely to see more ballot initiatives on the minimum wage and other progressive economic issues,” said Paul Sonn, general counsel at the National Employment Law Project, an organization that has supported minimum wage pushes across the U.S.
Following minimum-wage-hike victories in four red states on Nov. 4 — South Dakota, Nebraska, Alaska and Arkansas — Sonn said he is confident there will be many more progressive economic ballot propositions two years from now than there were this past cycle. While he said it is too early to know which would be in play, Sonn identified states like Missouri, Colorado, Maine, New Mexico and Washington state as places where gridlock makes ballot initiatives an appealing option.
It is likely that there also will be paid sick leave and equal pay propositions on ballots in 2016, according to several experts. Arkadi Gerney, senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, said that the uptick in economic initiatives is largely in response to Congress and state legislatures failing to address decades-long wage stagnation.
Several recreational-marijuana legalization organizations have confirmed that groups are gearing up for five states in 2016 — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — as many as the past two cycles combined. Pro-legalization leaders have also said marijuana has an outside shot at being on the ballot in Missouri and Montana.
In 2014, Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to legalize recreational marijuana. Washington, D.C., did the same, though the nation’s capital did not legalize the sale of cannabis, just its use and transfer. A constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana in Florida failed but still garnered 58 percent of the vote (60 percent is required for approval) — a strong showing that indicates it could pass soon, maybe as early as 2016.
Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the group’s forceful ballot-proposition push is also due to gridlock in state legislatures. “In the legislature, you can have a majority of elected officials in support, but it might be held up for five years due to one or two legislators, or a governor threatening a veto,” he said.
And Nevadans for Background Checks has already turned in more than enough signatures for a 2016 gun-control initiative. Advocates are trying to seize on the momentum of a victory this cycle in Washington state, which approved a measure known as “I-594” to provide universal background checks on firearms, including for gun shows and private sales. Arizona and Maine also might make a push for background check initiatives to make the ballot in 2016. Several groups said that if background check legislation fails in the Oregon Legislature, it is a good bet that it will wind up on the ballot there, too.
“If you can’t push it through the legislature and make it law, let’s take it to the people,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the biggest financial backer of Washington state’s successful background check proposition.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, is vowing to pursue ballot initiatives in all 17 states that permit citizen initiatives and do not have background check regulations on the books.
Progressive groups argue that these policies are widely popular but have gone nowhere in Congress. Gun control advocates point to statistics that show about 90 percent of Americans support background checks on all gun purchases. Fifty-one percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup. And several surveys taken earlier this year indicate that more than seven in 10 Americans support raising the federal minimum wage, including a majority of Republicans.
Such statistics were often cited by Democrats during failed attempts to pass legislation to expand federal background checks in April 2013 and raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour earlier this year.
The progressive ballot initiative strategy is, by nature, limited. Only 24 states allow for citizen ballot initiatives, propositions that earn a spot on the ballot by getting a requisite number of signatures from residents. Some of those 24 include deep red states like North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
But while the ballot proposition strategy has its limitations, groups can use it to begin to build momentum for federal action.
“It starts changing the debate,” said John Matsusaka, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Initiative and Referendum Institute. After some initiatives pass, he said, “legislators start realizing, ‘Hey, there’s much more support for this than I thought.’ And then, you can get some of the non-initiative states to move.”
Gross, who called the I-594 background checks measure a “game-changer,” said ballot initiative victories offer a “dual benefit” — progress for those states and greater momentum for the ultimate goal of federal action on universal background checks.
Progressives did suffer some defeats in 2014, notably on two initiatives for genetically modified food labeling that failed in Colorado and Oregon. But liberals succeeded in nearly every initiative on core issues, marking perhaps the most successful cycle in more than a decade.
In 2012, progressives had some major victories, including Colorado and Washington state becoming the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana. But there were also significant losses, such as an embarrassing defeat for recreational-marijuana legalization in deep-blue Oregon. In 2008 — a major voter-turnout year that gave the Democrats a Senate supermajority and propelled Barack Obama to the presidency — progressives were on the defensive, as same-sex marriage bans passed in three states and voters in several states made decisions on initiatives to curtail affirmative action and restrict abortion.
Meanwhile, some groups on the other side are vowing to push back in 2016. Anti-marijuana legalization groups say there will be a “counteroffensive” before the end of the year, according to a source close to the movement.
“We are ramping up our efforts,” said Kevin Sabet, who co-founded the anti-legalization Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).
“It’s clear that we have a lot of work to do. I’m not looking at this with rose-colored glasses,” Sabet added, when asked about victories for the legalization movement in 2012 and 2014. Still, he argued that a spending advantage was a main reason for legalization successes. Anti-legalization advocates were badly outspent in both Oregon and Alaska this past cycle.
Sabet would not rule out some anti-legalization ballot initiatives, either, including those that might tie state marijuana policy to federal policy, where ending prohibition would be far more difficult. “All options are on the table,” he said.
For their part, the NRA and gun rights advocates say they are closely monitoring gun control on the ballot. “We take every challenge to the Second Amendment very seriously,” said NRA Managing Director of Public Affairs Andrew Arulanandam. “The gun control lobby, particularly Mike Bloomberg, they are so well-funded that they can literally do anything they want.”
Gun rights groups also downplayed the victory in Washington state, saying gun control advocates would have much tougher sledding in purple and red states. “Nevada certainly is no Washington state,” said a source close to the movement.
But the minimum-wage issue appears to be difficult to slow at the ballot box: Since 2002, all 14 ballot propositions to raise the minimum wage have passed, according to The Wall Street Journal. Opposition to wage hike proposals has lacked significant fundraising or organizational depth.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said conservatives are “keeping an eye on” progressive successes at the ballot and that they are “concerned” about a broader campaign encroaching upon conservative states.
“There is concern that it could move to more traditionally conservative states, and that’s where they’re going to try to stop it,” he said.
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