Ballot initiatives become pricey playgrounds of parties and corporations

PUEBLO, Colo. — In a midterm election season when control of the United States Senate hangs in the balance, Democrats are increasingly turning to ballot measures to get otherwise reluctant voters to the polls.

Big Business is, too: Some of the most expensive races in the country this year will be ballot measures written by, and for, major corporations. Some the hardest-fought ballot battles of 2014 won’t involve candidates at all. They’ll be questions that come with big implications for corporate bottom lines — or promise big benefits to political strategists, especially Democrats, looking to drive turnout for other races.

For the first time in history, spending on the approximately 125 ballot questions facing voters in 41 states is likely to top $1 billion in campaign spending this year — and perhaps much more: Oil and gas companies in Alaska spent more than $170 for every vote they won in a successful campaign to reject higher taxes earlier this month.

Some of the issues involved are intensely local. Maine voters will be asked whether to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting, for the second time. Mississippi voters will decide on a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to hunt and fish.

But state-level iterations of major national questions will grace the ballot in a string of competitive states this fall. And perhaps nowhere is their influence more keenly felt than here in Colorado.

In a state where a ballot initiative two years ago legalized the sale of marijuana, the focus this time around has shifted from pot to personhood. First-term incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D) is using Amendment 67, which he opposed and which would amend the state’s constitution to define a fetus as a person under the Colorado criminal code, to convince single women to turn out to vote to protect abortion rights. If they show up to the polls to vote against the personhood measure, the calculation goes, they will stay to vote for Udall and other Democrats on the ticket.

Udall’s fall opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner (R), also opposes the amendment, he said in an interview. But he has voiced support for so-called personhood amendments before, giving Udall an opening.

“Congressman Gardner has said one thing here and he’s doing one thing in Washington, D.C. It raises the question: Have his positions changed, or have his ambitions changed?” Udall said at a barbecue for political elites at the state fair here. “Elections are in the end about somebody you trust to represent your point of view. And personhood doesn’t represent a majority of Coloradans’ point of view. So it’s a significant debate.”

Just below the personhood amendment sits another measure, Amendment 68, that has two sets of corporations squaring off.
The Rhode Island-based owners of the Arapahoe Park Racetrack, southwest of Denver, have raised more than $2 million to advance the measure, which would let them convert the race track into a resort-style casino. Opponents have raised more than $9 million for their campaign against the measure, mostly from corporations such as Nevada-based Ameristar Casinos and Golden Gaming and St. Louis-based Isle of Capri Casinos.

Supporters stand to make millions from residents and tourists in the Denver metropolitan area if the measure passes. Opponents, which own casinos in small mountain towns farther outside Denver, stand to lose millions in revenue if gambling options open closer to town.

“It’s the perfect example of one big business interest versus another big business interest,” said state Rep. Frank McNulty (R), a former state House speaker. Radio stations throughout the state are already packed with advertising for and against Amendment 68.

Versions of the ballot battles playing out in Colorado are popping up across the country.

In Arkansas and Alaska, Democrats hope ballot measures that would raise the minimum wage will drive turnout among low-income voters, who are more likely to vote for Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) if they show up. In Illinois, where Gov. Pat Quinn (D) trails venture capitalist Bruce Rauner (R) in polls, they hope an advisory question on the ballot will do the trick.

Voting rights is the base-driving issue for Democrats in Missouri, where the Republican-led legislature placed a proposal on the ballot that would create six days of early voting. That measure preempted a Democratic effort to create six weeks of early voting. Connecticut will ask voters whether to create an early vote system after legislators referred the question to the November ballot. In Montana, the Republican-led state legislature has put a measure on the ballot that would eliminate same-day voter registration.

Marijuana, too, can be a vote-mover. Voters in Florida will decide whether to make the Sunshine State the 24th to legalize possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Democrats hope the initiative gives a boost to former governor Charlie Crist (D) in his tight race against incumbent Gov. Rick Scott (R); both sides are pouring millions into the proxy fight. The wealthy trial lawyer John Morgan, a close ally of Crist’s, has put $4 million into the initiative campaign. On the other side, former ambassador Mel Sembler, a major Republican donor, is leading the opposition. Sheldon Adelson, a close friend of Sembler’s, donated $2.5 million to the no campaign.

Medical marijuana has “become extremely politicized, and certainly intertwined with the governor’s race. And each [party] sees it as critical to turnout,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. Polls show the measure passing by wide margins, especially among younger voters — a demographic that doesn’t always show up in midterm elections, and one that’s far more likely to back Crist than Scott.

Still, some of the bitterest ballot fights this fall have less to do with partisan positions than the corporate bottom line. One of the biggest business-on-business ballot faceoffs is expected to take place in California, where trial lawyers are fighting doctors and insurers over a measure that would raise the existing limit on non-economic damages awarded in malpractice lawsuits from $250,000 to $1.1 million and require drug tests of doctors.

More than $56 million has been raised by groups — mostly doctors and insurers — fighting the malpractice measure, Proposition 46. More than $37 million has been raised by groups fighting Proposition 45, a measure requiring state approval of changes to health insurance rates, according to Ballotpedia, a fact-checked encyclopedia on American politics and elections sponsored by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Lucy Burns Institute. Groups supporting the rate-change measure – including consumer watchdogs and trial lawyers — have raised more than $980,000, while those backing the malpractice measure have raised more than $5 million.

“It wouldn’t be shocking to see upwards of $100 million on these initiatives,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

And that’s just a fraction of the expected nationwide total: Ballot measure committees raised nearly $1 billion in 2012, according to a March report by the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics. The more than $939 million raised during that election cycle was the most the group has seen since it began tracking such contributions in 2004.

Oregon and Colorado ballot measures to require labeling of genetically modified foods are expected to draw big spending: Last year, a similar fight in Washington became the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in the state’s history, as corporate giants such as Pepsico, Nestle, Coca-Cola, General Mills, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto and Dupont contributed to the $22 million to defeat the measure. Proponents of labeling spent roughly $9 million.

Even with the unprecedented early spending, more money is likely to pour in after Labor Day. In Washington, more than 85 percent of the $22 million spent to defeat the GMO labeling measure wasn’t used until September and October, according to state data.

“We can kind of guess, based on the issues being addressed or how much money’s been put in so far, at which measures are going to be really hot this year,” said Ballotpedia’s Clingen. “But a lot can change over the next couple of months.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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