One Eye on the Ballot

It's a big year for ballot issues. Mid-term elections, when no President is being elected, typically see less activity on the ballot issue front than Presidential years, but 2006 is proving to be an exception. Eighteen states will consider 76 ballot issues this fall, as high as its been since 1914 for a non-Presidential year.

The right's use of ballot issues as a tool to frame political debates and mobilize voters became the hot discussion topic after the 2004 election, when voters across the country faced same-sex marriage bans. What the national press has missed until recently is that progressives, led by the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, have become quite adept at using ballot measures themselves -- high-profile minimum wage and stem cell measures are set to have an impact on major swing state elections.

The Dispatch has devoted a lot of virtual ink to looking at the minimum wage measures and at some right-wing measures. But these are hardly the only initiatives on the ballot this year. Today, we look at some measures and tactics that may be flying under the radar this year, but that are sure to return in future years.

Howie Rich and his gang of libertarian friends are pushing multiple far-right initiatives across the country. They're now also mass-mailing FOIA requests sure to simultaneously hamstring government and set the stage for political witchhunts. Massachusetts voters will have the opportunity to embrace a unique democracy reform -- fusion voting -- that has done wonders in New York for shaking up the political status quo. Also -- in several states, marijuana laws are set to be voted on, in continuation of an on-going pattern to legalize medicinal marijuana and decrease penalties for marijuana possession.

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How Howie Met FOIA

Look up "astroturf" -- fake grassroots -- in the dictionary and you're likely to see a picture of Howie Rich. The man and his friends epitomize the practice. From offices in New York and Illinois, Rich and his allies have worked to qualify and pass ballot issues in states across the country, often with little-to-no real support from in-state. Local figureheads are identified, money is moved, workers are shuffled from state-to-state, and -- in most cases -- they screw up and fail to qualify for the ballot.

They're now taking this astroturf approach to a new tactic: Freedom of Information requests. Sending out at least 2,000 requests in six states, the Virginia-based "Citizens in Charge" is tied in with the same network that paid to get the far-rightwing regulatory takings and TABOR-style spending cap initiatives qualified for the ballot. To understand just how astroturf the operation is, though, let's look at the Montana requests.

Trevis Butcher, the local political activist who has served as a spokesperson for the Rick-backed initiatives (now struck from the ballot for widespread fraud in the signature gathering process), sent requests with his signature to every school district, county, and city in the State of Montana. While Butcher signed the requests, according to the Great Falls Tribune he promptly "distanced himself" and "couldn't say how many agencies across the state were asked to divulge public records."

Make no mistake, the public should have access to public records and citizens deserve to keep an eye on their government. It's less clear that some guy in Virginia should be able to issue thousands of requests to keep an eye on the governments of Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, and Nevada. As multiple agencies targeted by these requests have made plain -- responding to inquiries of this scope can take serious amounts of time -- time that public employees could be using working for their own constituents.

What is clear is that this huge undertaking is being driven to identify small numbers of public employees who may have used their email accounts to pass along emails supporting or opposing ballot measures. This is nothing like a grassroots effort, but people need to know -- as long as a single person in a state is willing to allow their signature to be used, Howie Rich and his friends will tie up your entire state to find a single email they can use to tar and feather their opponents.

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Cold Fusion for Democracy

Massachusetts' Question 2 would allow candidates to be endorsed by more than one party, otherwise known as fusion voting or cross-endorsement. New York and Connecticut voters have been using fusion voting for years. In the current two-party stronghold system, fusion voting allows for third party entries without the concern of "throw away" votes.

The way it works is simple. In addition to the Democratic or Republican endorsement, a candidate can also be endorsed by another party, such as the Working Families Party. Then,voters can either chose to vote for a candidate as a Democratic party candidate or as a Working Families Party candidate. In New York, for instance, Hillary Clinton received 102,000 votes from the Working Families Party endorsement. Thus, while she received the votes, they came from a different party with different priorities than the Democratic party. To continue receiving these votes, she must then address the concerns of the Working Families Party. Fusion voting allows for the entrance of a viable third party to break the two-party stronghold. In tight races, the percentage points add up and can mean the difference between gaining or losing a majority of votes.

But fusion voting goes beyond a simple way of holding some people accountable, it can even be used to build bipartisan progressive majorities. Dan Cantor, executive director of New York's Working Families Party, recently defended his party's endorsement of both Republicans and Democrats noting that Working Families-endorsed Republicans played a key roll in advancing a $2 an hour minimum wage increase through the GOP-held State Senate. Fusion voting can crack political opposition and create opportunities for progressive success.

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Will the States Green Light Marijuana Initiatives?

Proposals to legalize certain uses of marijuana or to ease enforcement of marijuana laws are on several state and local ballots this November. Voters in South Dakota will decide whether to allow its use for medicinal purposes while voters in Colorado and Nevada will be asked if they want to legalize it for recreational purposes. Still, several "lowest law enforcement priorities" are on municipal ballots in 5 cities in California, Montana and Arkansas. These initiatives ask voters if the enforcement of marijuana laws should be the lowest priority for law enforcement.

The South Dakota ballot question, Initiated Measure 4, would allow people with debilitating medical conditions to grow, possess and use a small amount of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The White House, through its deputy drug czar, argues that these laws make marijuana more accessible to minors. Supporters, like South Dakotans for Medicinal Marijuana, say marijuana is a safer alternative than many potent prescription drugs. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, 11 states have similar medical marijuana laws.

In Colorado and Nevada, voters have already legalized medical marijuana. The question before them this time is whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Question 7, in Nevada, legalizes the possession and private use of up to one ounce of marijuana and establishes harsher penalties for distributing marijuana to minors and driving while under the influence. Similarly, Colorado's Amendment 44 authorizes the possession of no more than one ounce of marijuana, but does not change other marijuana enforcement laws. Denver legalized the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana in a municipal vote in 2005.

The campaigns in Colorado and Nevada have been heated at times and have brought the attention of the US Federal drug czar John Walters. As reported in the Denver Post, a recent poll of 625 registered Colorado voters showed waning support for Amendment 44, with 34% supporting the initiative and 57% opposing it. The fate of Question 7 in Nevada is less certain. A September 26 poll reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed the race closer with 42% supporting and 51% opposing.

The lowest law enforcement priority initiatives would make marijuana offenses a "low priority" for law enforcement. Supporters argue that this would free up law enforcement to focus on violent and serious crime rather than using time and resources to prosecute nonviolent marijuana users. Opponents argue that minors would have easier access to marijuana under these laws. The 5 cities with lowest law enforcement priority initiatives on the November ballot are Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, and Santa Barbara in California, Missoula, Montana and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Currently, Seattle and Oakland have these laws on the books.