IN ADDITION to state and national politicians, Americans in 34 states will also be voting tomorrow on 163 ballot initiatives and referendums, ranging from gay marriage to tobacco taxation to bear baiting. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an unusually large crop of ballot initiatives: After rising in the 1990s, the numbers have begun to flatten out. But while the quantity of ballot initiatives is staying level, their political significance may be growing, and not necessarily in welcome ways.
Traditionally the issues that figured on ballot initiatives were ones that politicians were unwilling or unable to deal with. Arizona's Proposition 200, a measure that aims to prevent undocumented immigrants from voting or receiving public services, is on the ballot because voters are frustrated by the lack of immigration reform in a state that has recently become a mecca for illegal immigration. Alaska's "anti-nepotism" proposal, which would require elections to fill empty Senate seats (and would have prevented Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R) from appointing his daughter, Lisa Murkowski (R) to fill his old seat) is another that deals with an issue that politicians have failed to resolve.
But this year's crop also features a number of referenda that have been explicitly pushed onto the ballot not because the political class has ignored them but because a part of the political class wants to lure particular kinds of voters to the polls. Most notably, Republicans have sponsored measures banning same-sex marriage in 11 states, among them Ohio, precisely to bring out the evangelical voters whom the administration believes stayed home last time. Similarly, proposals to raise the minimum wage are on the ballot in Florida and Nevada, where advocates hope they will draw Democratic voters, as a similar measure did in Washington in 1998. California's stem cell research initiative wasn't intended to have quite the same effect but has deliberately drawn national attention to an issue that Democrats believe helps them.
Without question, this is a negative trend, one that will further polarize opinion on difficult issues by making them footballs of election-year politics. Equally unwelcome is the trend toward giving voters choices on technical budgetary and taxation issues that ought to be the focus of more sustained legislative and political deliberation: the implementation of self-financing bonds in North Carolina, the abolition of a sales tax on food in South Dakota, limits on property taxes in Maine and Washington, and a whole raft of gambling issues in California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and elsewhere. Deciding on tax and spending issues outside of a larger context is a recipe for disaster: It negates the weighing-and-balancing process that state legislatures were designed to carry out.
The best argument for ballot initiatives is that they can occasionally move forward an issue that cannot be dealt with by ordinary political means. Unfortunately, too many of this year's ballot initiatives seem specifically designed to gridlock the political process even further.