Billboards, Animal Traps, And A Tight Presidential Race

Ballot initiatives usually aren't what pull people to the polls in Presidential election years. But with 2000 shaping up as the closest race since 1976, voters motivated by ballot measures could tip certain states in the direction of Vice-President Al Gore or Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Why? Because this year many of the most controversial ballot initiatives are in battleground states, where a small number of undecided voters will likely determine the election's outcome. "We think this year ballot measures might have coattails," says Galen Nelson, executive director of Washington's Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a liberal group that monitors initiatives.

Those coattails may be longest in Michigan, where 18 electoral votes are up for grabs and polls show the race is a dead heat. Michigan is home to a hard-fought and controversial initiative that would provide $3,100 worth of vouchers to families of students in the worst-performing public-school districts. Supporters see Michigan as an important test of the appeal of vouchers, which have never won approval in any statewide initiative (although a plan has been approved by the Florida legislature). A recent poll shows the referendum too close to call, with 41% in favor, 40% opposed, and 19% undecided.

COUNTERATTACK. The Michigan initiative could have an unintended consequence: It has spawned a massive get-out-the-vote counterattack from the Michigan Teachers Assn. and labor unions. And that turnout, some Republicans fear, could tip the scale toward Gore. It might even help Democratic Senate candidate Debbie Stabenow, who is running behind incumbent GOP Senator Spencer Abraham by a few percentage points. The initiative's most vocal proponent, Amway President Richard M. DeVos Jr., acknowledges that fellow Republicans have criticized him for putting the measure on the ballot. But he says: "No ballot initiative in the history of America has driven turnout in a Presidential election year."

So why did Michigan GOP Governor John Engler fight to keep the voucher measure off the ballot? "I didn't think it was a great year [to have it on the ballot], and I also think it wasn't really structured right," Engler says. But Engler's opposition may be motivated by politics as well as policy. "Governor Engler is a smart politician," says University of Michigan political scientist Gregory Markus. "He's concluded this is a loser because it has the potential to mobilize Democrats."

Ballot initiatives could also help turn out Democrats in Missouri, another major toss-up state with 11 electoral votes. There, voters will decide whether to ban billboards and provide public financing for state candidates. Both measures, says M. Dane Waters, president of the nonpartisan Initiative & Referendum Institute, could bring "people out who otherwise would have sat out the election."

It's not always possible to predict how controversial ballot measures might affect turnout. Oregon, for instance, will have 26 separate questions, many of them hot-button issues ranging from taxes to gun shows. A measure banning school instruction that "encourages, promotes, or sanctions" homosexuality could bring out otherwise uninspired conservatives--or it could mobilize the left. In Washington State, voters will decide whether to ban certain types of animal traps. That could motivate both hunters and animal lovers.

In 1996, only 49% of eligible voters bothered to show up at the polls, and this year, turnout is expected to be even lower. While ballot initiatives might not reverse the downward trend in participation, they could play a surprising role if the Presidential race is decided by a razor-thin margin.

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