Voters Get Mixed Bag Of Ballot Initiatives

Quite a few ballot initiatives may play as much a role as candidates in drawing voters to polls for the midterm elections. From Rhode Island considering a name change to Oklahoma's potential banning of Shari'a law, voters will have their say. Host Michel Martin discusses some of the quirky and controversial ballot initiatives with Fernand Amandi, a political analyst and vice president of the public opinion firm Bendixen and Associates, and Linda Chavez, a political commentator and analyst for Fox News and chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead we are going to talk more about some of the issues before the voters today. It's Election Day. In a few minutes, we're going to talk about something you probably didn't hear too much about in many election campaigns this year -poverty and hunger, even after recent government reports confirmed a surge in both. We'll be speaking to a minister and activist who's working to get poverty back into our conversations about politics.

But first, we wanted to talk about some of the more interesting or provocative ballot initiatives that voters are considering around the country. Of course ballot initiatives on the process by which voters make some key decisions directly.

In California, that means a decision over legalizing marijuana. In Rhode Island, it means changing the name of the state altogether. These ballot initiatives some say are really more about getting voters to the polls, or key constituencies to the poll than they really are about legislating.

So we'll talk about that with Fernand Amandi. He's a political analyst and vice president of the polling and consulting firm Bendixen and Associates. And Linda Chavez, political commentator and analyst for FOX News, and chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity. That's a think tank devoted exclusively to issues of race and ethnicity. And I thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Political Commentator and Analyst, FOX News): Great to be with you.

Mr. FERNAND AMANDI (Political Analyst; Vice President, Bendixen and Associates): It's a pleasure to be back with you, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: All right. Well, good, Fernand. Thank you so much for joining us. So, let's start in California with, I think, perhaps the best known initiative of this election cycle, Proposition 19. It would legalize marijuana under state, but not federal law. California would be allowed to regulate and tax the commercial production and sale of marijuana.

So, Fernand, I'll ask you, is this something that you think is likely to pass? And what role do you think this sort of plays in the political debate in California right now?

Mr. AMANDI: Well, Michel, if you look at the trend over the last several polls that have come out in the last week, it looks like the measure is not going to pass. And I think part of the reason is the entire California political establishment for the most part and also the major newspapers have come out strongly against the measure.

And, again, I think while this might have been the year, given the strong budget deficits and the crisis that exists in California and obviously the revenue possibilities that such a measure might create, it just is buckling under the tremendous political opposition that you're seeing in place. And it looks like it's not going to pass.

MARTIN: Linda, do you agree?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Yes. I think that is likely. I think a lot of people hoped that this was going to bring out a lot of young voters and that it might actually (unintelligible) to the benefit of the Democrats. But the measure is more controversial than some people thought. And I think it's going to end up going down tonight.

MARTIN: Let's talk about, Linda, why don't you take the lead on this one, Arizona's Proposition 107, both of you worked on that. And I should mention that, Linda, you were a former Republican candidate for Senate in Maryland. And Fernand, you mainly work on - with Democratic candidates. So just to let everybody know where you are, for at least that part of your identity. And you both worked on Prop 107, it's called the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative. It would effectively end state affirmative action programs.

There have been just - you know, Arizona, of course, has just been a focus for so much conversation about these issues this year. So, Linda, why don't you tell us a little more about the initiative and whether you think it's going to pass.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I've also been very directly involved in this. My organization, the Center for Equal Opportunity, has done studies of college admissions and law school admissions in Arizona, showing that race is a big factor in admissions decisions in this state.

And this initiative is very similar, in fact, almost identical to language that was passed a few years ago in Michigan to outlaw racial preferences in college admission, state contracting and employment, and also in the state of California and in the state of Washington.

So this is really part of a trend. The person who has been most active in promoting this initiative is Ward Connerly, who was formerly a regent in the University of California system. And his organization, the American Civil Rights Institute has been very, very active in promoting this initiative.

MARTIN: And you think it'll pass or not? What is your...

Ms. CHAVEZ: I think it probably will pass. It has passed in every state that has been on the ballot, except for the state of Colorado and it's very, very narrowly, was defeated in Colorado by I think about 500 votes, with a huge input of money to defeat the initiative in Colorado. So I think it's likely to pass in Arizona.

MARTIN: And, Fernand, we're going to hear from you. Before I do, I have actually some of the debate from a virtual town hall meeting on this, which was presented by the Arizona secretary of state's office. I'll just play two clips and they're back to back with different points of view. Here it is.

Unidentified Woman: Somewhere big government went wrong. Somehow they've confused civil rights with quotas that favor one group over another. A yes vote on Prop 107 will stop the government from picking winners and losers based on race and sex in three specific areas: public education, public contracting and public employment.

Unidentified Man: Supporters of 107 would have you believe that it's their mission to remove racial biases in society. However, all the wording sounds awesome. Historically, identical legislation has resulted in the removal of resources and support services to students who truly needed them.

MARTIN: I found that virtual town hall was kind of cool. But Fernand, what's your take on this?

Mr. AMANDI: Michel, I think you kind of touched on it when you were setting up this portion. You got to look at the politics behind this, especially who benefits, who gains for putting a measure like this on the ballot. I don't think there was really the public uprising and a public outcry for this in Arizona. I think what is also risked, Arizona particularly in this cycle already being seen as a somewhat intolerant way of handling its minority population with of course the famous controversy around SB1070.

And I think it harkens back to the controversy regarding the Martin Luther King holiday, where the message here is that minorities in this case, Hispanics, African-Americans and even women in some cases would not benefit from continuing this policy, in spite of the fact that affirmative action is already outlawed in the state constitution.

So I think it's something that frankly, probably will not end up passing and I think the politics are very much more still in play here than you would see elsewhere.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about just a few of the ballot initiatives that voters are considering around the country with political analyst and pollster Fernand Amandi and Linda Chavez with the Center for Equal Opportunity. Fernand is a Democrat, Linda Chavez is a Republican.

And to that end, there's another controversial question in Oklahoma where there's a push to ban Sharia Law or Islamic Law from being used in court decisions. Fernand, you know, it's one of those things that I think people outside the state have been very puzzled by. Is there really anybody trying to use Sharia Law in Oklahoma? So, what's your sense of this?

Mr. AMANDI: Again, I mean, I think this is completely and utterly motivated by politics. When you look at the fundamental fact is that judges in Oklahoma, they're already bound to follow state and federal precedent. So, to address a question like this, which would invoke international law, which wouldn't even be applicable in the U.S. courts, I think, really plays to some of the fear mongering we've seen around this issue.

Not just obviously in Arizona, but of course the national polemic, with the building of the ground zero mosque. I think that taps into some of that sentiment, I think, in a sense, really tries to motivate a particular base of voters to come out on an issue which, again, doesn't really seem to be front and center in the political debate of Oklahoma.

MARTIN: Linda, what do you think?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I agree partially with what Fernand has said. I do think that this is a kind of wedge issue that is motivated more to getting out certain voters than it is about the actual facts of the initiative.

But I will say that there have been instances in the United States, including a fairly well known case in New Jersey where a judge basically threw out a charge of rape by a husband of his wife, citing the fact that the husband was a devout Muslim. And under Sharia Law there would be no crime of rape. It would be impossible to rape your wife. And so that case, by the way, was overturned at the appellate level.

But I do think this does raise the question in some people's minds of whether or not people are very concerned about the cultural changes that are taking place, about the fact that you do have now a large and growing population of Muslims, some of whom do practice a very fundamentalist form of Islam. And I think this is a reaction to that.

MARTIN: And, finally, I just wanted to ask you about this initiative in Rhode Island. There's a measure asking people to change something that many people might not even know about. The state's actual full name is the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. And voters are being asked to simply simplify the name to the state of Rhode Island. Linda, what do you think about that?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I certainly didn't know that it had a longer name. I think this is one of those initiatives that probably is well meaning. But, frankly, the default position on initiatives that you don't know much about or care much about is to vote no. And so I think it'll probably go down to defeat. I don't think that the residents of Rhode Island, most of them, are even aware of the full name of the state. And I certainly was unaware of it until I did a little research for this interview.

MARTIN: And, finally, Fernand, do you, you know, ballot initiatives used to be really big news and they are less so this year, but there are still some that are, as we've discussed, getting a lot of attention. I'm wondering if you think that sort of the whole ballot process is still as significant as it was, or perhaps even more so. We hear so much about, you know, Tea Party activism and what's that doing to our political process. As quickly as you can, what do you think about that?

Mr. AMANDI: Michel, I think the fact that we continue talking about these amendments and these initiatives around the country are evidence that, for better or worse, they do have a political consequence. They have a political role to play, and I think you'll continue to see them, especially if they actually do end up doing what they're aimed to do, which is to always motivate a series of voters to come out on issues. So I think you'll continue to see this going forward.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we'll have to see. We'll check back and see what happens at the end of the week. Fernand Amandi is a political analyst and vice president of the polling and consulting firm Bendixen and Associates. He was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami. Linda Chavez is a political commentator and analyst for Fox News and chair of the think tank, the Center for Equal Opportunity. She joined us from her home office in Virginia. I thank you both.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.

Mr. AMANDI: Thank you, Michel.

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