As it happens, I live in California, which is far from being competitive in the presidential election. So the Biden and Trump campaigns are wasting any money they spend on interrupting my television shows here. Nor are there any statewide offices on the ballot this year. My county is heavily Democratic, moreover, so there really aren’t any competitive congressional or state legislative races.
You’d think voters in my area would be blessedly free of political ad battering. But no: Proponents and/or opponents of ballot initiatives are ubiquitous over every medium of communication.
California has always been a huge venue for ballot initiatives because they are relatively easy to set up (some by citizen petitions, others — generally constitutional amendments — by the legislature) and because the special interests and (sometimes) wealthy individuals who sponsor them often find it an easier way to work their will on the nation’s largest state than through more conventional means. But while laws governing ballot initiatives vary widely among the states, they are widespread: According to Ballotpedia, voters in 32 states will deal with a total of 120 ballot measures on November 3.
Some are on hardy perennial issues like redistricting reform (there are initiatives in Missouri, New Jersey, and Virginia to create nonpartisan map-drawing commissions), term limits (Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri), and bond issues (in six states). Some, by contrast, are relevant to this year’s hot-button issues, such as criminal-justice reform, as the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty reports:
Also on the ballot across the country are at least 20 statewide and local initiatives that would deal with criminal justice — from measures in Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Maine, that would establish civilian review boards to investigate claims of police misconduct, to a proposed constitutional amendment in Michigan that would require a search warrant for law enforcement to gain access to anyone’s electronic communications.
And there are four states where voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana.
Ballotpedia’s list of the ten most expensive ballot-initiative fights shows how money doesn’t necessarily follow the issues at the top of polls measuring public-policy concerns. In Massachusetts, $47 million has been spent for ($21 million) and against ($26 million) a “right to repair” initiative forcing auto manufacturers to give independent repair shops access to vehicle computers.
And to come full circle, the most expensive ballot initiative fight of them all is California’s Prop 22, which would exempt gig workers for rideshare and delivery companies from a new state law mandating treatment of many independent contractors with a single “customer” as employees with the accompanying worker and benefit protections. Of the incredible $194 million that has been spent on Prop 22, an even more incredible $184 million has been spent by one side, mostly by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and other affected employers. The financially outgunned opponents include most of California’s major unions, along with many prominent Democratic pols, including presidential and vice-presidential nominees Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
It’s often hard to judge the fate of ballot initiatives since there is rarely any public polling on them. Two exceptions, again in California, also show how important it is for proponents of these measures to properly time their appearance on the ballot. Prop 16, which would restore affirmative action programs revoked by an earlier initiative, and Prop 15, which would strip commercial property of the ancient Proposition 13 property tax assessment freeze for parcels held by the same owners or their heirs, are measures deemed very important by California progressives. They’ve been waiting for years and years for the right moment to place them before voters, choosing 2020 as a presidential election year in which turnout by left-leaning voters was expected to peak.
According to the very solid PPIC polling firm, Prop 16 is in serious trouble, trailing in a new poll of likely voters by a 50-38 margin and losing in every region of the state. Meanwhile, Prop 15, which led 51-40 in a September survey, is now favored by a perilous 49-45 margin. If it fails, it could be a long, cold stretch of time before anyone ever again challenges California’s wildly regressive property-tax limits, which voters in this state imposed on each other and their children and grandchildren 42 years ago. This year’s ballot initiatives in California and elsewhere should be so lucky.