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  •   Initiatives Bypass Traditional Lawmaking

    The Ballot Battle

    By William Booth
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, November 5, 1998; Page A33

    LOS ANGELES, Nov. 4 – From Hawaii to Maine, in hundreds of local and state ballot initiatives, on death and taxes, gays and gambling, on marijuana, abortion, smoking, campaigning and the right of muskrats to die humanely, voters made the tough calls Tuesday.

    In a process that is circumventing the traditional power of elected officials, thus spoke the electorate in 1998:

    Many like the idea of letting physicians prescribe marijuana to the infirm, which voters approved in Nevada, Washington and Arizona. But they don't want doctors to help patients commit suicide in Michigan, even in the land of Jack Kevorkian. In a snub to the Christian Coalition, the voters told the government not to interfere with even late-term abortions in Washington and Colorado.

    On the emotional question of fairness, the people in Washington state don't think women or minorities should be given "preferential treatment" in hiring and contracts for state jobs, another strike against affirmative action programs after the passage of a similar measure in California two years ago.

    Americans again showed their environmental bent. Corporate hog farmers were ordered to clean up their stink in South Dakota and Colorado, while in Montana, the people told mining companies they cannot use cyanide in gold mines, thereby halting new projects on the Blackfoot River, famed as a fly-fishing mecca. Oregon bucked the trend. There, voters rejected limits on forest clear-cutting.

    In California, people believe Indians should be able to run casinos on tribal lands; that smokers ought to cough up 50 cents a pack in new taxes to support early childhood development programs; and that using steel-jawed leg traps to kill muskrats and other varmints is inhumane.

    On the political front, the electorates in Massachusetts and Arizona want to give public money to candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending and refuse big-money donations. In Oregon, they want to do away with the ballot box and mail in all the votes. The people asked for term limits in Idaho and Colorado.

    And finally, people in Alaska and Hawaii are not crazy about sanctioning gay marriages. The Denver Broncos get a new taxpayer-financed stadium. It will be all right to keep "boats in moats" as floating casinos in Missouri. And the days of fighting roosters and baiting bears are over in, respectively, Arizona and Missouri.

    This is the new reality of politics and policy in America, where increasingly the nation's hottest topics are going directly before voters, whose decisions at the ballot box circumvent the traditional way that laws get made by elected officials.

    There were 61 major statewide initiatives in 16 states, plus hundreds more referendums and propositions. It appears as if six of every 10 measures passed, the first time a majority of the initiatives were approved.

    "The voters addressed the tough issues that elected officials have been unwilling to deal with as well as voted down those they weren't quite ready for," said M. Dane Water, president of the nonpartisan Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington. "The people spoke on Election Day and made it clear they were hungry for true reform."

    Proponents of many measures saw in their passing clear signs that voters wanted to send a message to statehouses and Washington.

    Ethan Nadelman, director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy group in New York, pointed to nine measures around the country that either supported the use of medical marijuana or rejected efforts to recriminalize marijuana possession, as was the case in Oregon.

    "Yesterday's clean sweep of victories for medical marijuana and drug policy reform herald a new era in the electoral politics of the drug war," said Nadelman, who also works closely with billionaire George Soros, who has bankrolled initiatives supporting medical marijuana. "These results represent a wake-up call to politicians, both those accustomed to engaging in drug war demagoguery and those who have so far been fearful of proposing pragmatic alternatives to the war on drugs."

    But if the experiment in California is any indication, a vote for medical marijuana does not mean it will become widely available. Over the past two years, most of the "healing centers" that sold "prescriptions" of marijuana to ailing patients and others in California have been closed by federal law enforcement officials, who maintain that the drug is still illegal and cannot be distributed. The measures' opponents assert that they are Trojan horse initiatives designed to loosen the nation's drug laws.

    Another measure with potential national repercussions is the decision by Washington state voters Tuesday to ban racial or gender preferences by the state. Ward Connerly, a black businessman who led the drive to pass a similar measure in California in 1996 and championed the Washington proposition, said he hopes the vote in Washington will push GOP leaders to embrace the issue.

    "With this election, Washingtonians have signaled to the country that the principle of fairness and equality for all, not just a chosen few, is not just a California idea – it's an American value that we can all embrace," Connerly said. "The Washington . . . vote demonstrates that the national movement to end racial and gender preferences has universal appeal."

    The measure to effectively end affirmative action in state hiring and contracts, as well as university enrollment, passed in Washington 58 percent to 42 percent, in a state that is almost 90 percent white. It passed in much more racially and ethnically diverse California two years ago 54 percent to 46 percent.

    The measure was emotional and hard-fought. National civil rights leaders Jesse L. Jackson and Julian Bond came to the state to urge voters to keep affirmative action in place. The state's most popular politician, Gov. Gary Locke (D), a Chinese American, warned voters that the measure would "hurt real people." Opponents of the measure pointed out that most of the beneficiaries were not minorities, but women. Opponents also argued that when voters were surveyed, they said they'd like to keep affirmative action outreach programs. However, the way the measure was written, it simply asked voters to reject "preferences" based on race or gender, the opponents argued.

    After success in Washington state, Connerly plans to push a similar ban in Michigan, Arizona or Nebraska.

    But as is often the case in voter initiatives, the opponents of ending affirmative action in Washington threatened yesterday to take the issue before the courts.

    California experienced one of the most expensive ballot campaigns in the nation. Combined, opponents and proponents of Indian gambling spent as much as $100 million, most of it poured into television ads that were rerun relentlessly.

    The Indian tribes, some of which are transforming their reservations into glitzy Las Vegas-style casinos, complete with video slot and poker machines, won handily with 63 percent of the vote. The issue was on the ballot because Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has maintained that the Las Vegas-style gambling halls are illegal. But the voters seem to say that gambling is all right in California, as long as it is restricted to the Indian reservations.

    The victory "is the first time that wealthy business interests have not been allowed to sacrifice the lives of Indians and future Indians to satisfy their greed," said Anthony Pico, chairman of the Viejas tribe in San Diego County.

    The Indians, however, were not exactly poor themselves. They outspent their opponent, the Nevada gaming industry, which feared that an increase in casinos in the Golden State would mean fewer Californians would be willing to make the trek to Vegas or Reno to lose their money.

    Opponents of Indian gambling said today that they also would challenge the proposition and seek to have it overturned on constitutional grounds. "The handful of very wealthy gambling tribes that back [the proposition] spent $70 million to convince voters that they are poor Indians," said Cheryl Schmit of the citizens' group Stand Up for California. "They cynically played to the emotions of voters and led them down the path to approving an initiative they have known for months is blatantly illegal."

    In another measure that could spread from California to other states, Hollywood film maker Rob Reiner and his coalition of movie stars and health activists appeared ready to declare the narrowest of victories over the tobacco industry. Californians voted 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent to support Reiner's measure, which would tax a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents and use the estimated $750 million annual revenue to fund early childhood development programs. With about 7 million ballots cast, the measure appears to have won by 13,214 votes.

    The initiative was ravaged for weeks on the airwaves by television commercials paid for by the tobacco industry, which spent more than $30 million to Reiner and company's $7 million. The industry alleged that the measure was a regressive tax that would create a huge bureaucracy to spend the windfall. Many observers of the long-running tobacco wars in the most anti-nicotine state were surprised at the vote's closeness.

    And finally, Newport, Maine sought to outlaw the display of "female breasts . . . visible from a public way," in a local initiative prompted after a woman was seen mowing her lawn topless. The voters rejected the bare-breasted ban. As Maine goes, so goes the nation?

    Special correspondent Cassandra Stern contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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