Do Ballot Initiatives Help Get Out the Vote?

On Election Day, 207 ballot measures will be put to voters in 37 states. The big topics revolve around eminent domain, same-sex marriage and minimum wage. Robert Siegel talks about initiatives and with John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on questions that will confront voters all around the country. We're going to talk with Professor John Matsusaka of the University of Southern California, where he is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute. Welcome to the program, Professor Matsusaka.

Dr. JOHN MATSUSAKA (University of Southern California): Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: When you look all around the country at the referenda and initiatives that are on the ballot, what is most common? What's the big one this year?

Dr. MATSUSAKA: Well, the big issue this year is definitely land use, specifically eminent domain. There's 13 different states that are voting on measures to restrict the government's ability to take property.

SIEGEL: And this is a reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain, I'd assume?

Dr. MATSUSAKA: Exactly. Of course, the Kilo decision triggered a firestorm of anger across the country. There's a lot of ballot propositions responding to that. In some ways it's very similar to 2004, where a court ruling in Massachusetts declaring that gay couples had a right to marriage set off a storm of gay marriage ban measures across the country.

SIEGEL: And this year, gay marriage ban measures?

Dr. MATSUSAKA: Well, we're still seeing more of those. There's nine more of those on the ballot this year, but the issue seems to be tailing off a bit. Pretty much every state has just about passed it now and we're down to a few stragglers.

SIEGEL: Then there's an issue which appeared to be hot and would be the subject, we thought, of a great many referenda and that's raising the statewide minimum wage.

Dr. MATSUSAKA: Yeah, minimum wage was highly touted by Democratic groups early this year. They had in mind going back to 2004 that Bush might have won the presidency because there was a gay marriage amendment on the ballot in Ohio and the thinking was that attracted enough conservative voters, it put him over the top.

So their initial plan was to qualify up to ten different minimum wage measures across the nation this year to try to provide a boost to Democratic candidates.

They ended up with six measures, however, which is somewhat less than they thought and it looks like only one of those is probably in a truly competitive race, and that would be Missouri.

SIEGEL: There seems to be some conflicting conventional wisdom about whether if there is a very contentious issue, a question or referendum initiative on the ballot, whether that really does bring one group of voters out to the polls in much greater numbers and whether it really does benefit the candidate who shares their view. I've seen studies which suggest that really isn't the case and others who insist that it obviously is. What's your sense?

Dr. MATSUSAKA: Well, that's a really good question, and one of the interesting things about the minimum wage measures this year is we're going to get a chance to actually test that and see. The evidence suggest that, at least if you look at the marriage amendments, if you look at actual vote totals, the studies tend to suggest that it didn't have much of an effect for Bush.

If you look at survey evidence, if you ask people what they claim to be motivated by, then the marriage amendments look like they have more effect. But if you look at how they actually voted, it's very hard to find any effects.

SIEGEL: But that's leaving open the possibility that it is a stimulus to turnout.

Dr. MATSUSAKA: Absolutely. The truth is that this hasn't been tried as a strategy in a big way until the minimum wage measures this year. The marriage amendments weren't really put on there specifically to help Bush, they were put on there for groups that were upset about Massachusetts's ruling, and so forth.

So we don't have a great track record, so we really don't know. All we really seem to know is that the marriage amendments weren't that important as some of the pundits said immediately after the election.

One thing that might help the minimum wage measures is that we have a fairly low turnout environment here at the mid-term. You can think that back in 2004, everybody was pretty much going to go to the polls who had an interest in politics at all. So it's not likely that a marriage amendment was going to attract them. But here in this year, where it's a mid-term election, things aren't quite as hot, it's more possible that the minimum wages might start having an effect of attracting people to the polls.

SIEGEL: The issues that you've talked about are pretty much recognizable hot button issues. Are there any real surprises, I mean questions that are just much more obscure than that?

Dr. MATSUSAKA: Well, there's always some oddball types of issues that somebody puts on the ballot. Arizona has a measure where somebody has proposed to pay I believe $1 million to a randomly chosen person who votes, after each general election - kind of a little lottery as a way to get people to turn out. I believe Arizona has a measure to guarantee that pregnant pigs are given enough living space in their cages. Believe it or not, this is a trend now, because Florida passed a similar measure. They amended their constitution to protect pregnant pigs a few years ago, as well.

SIEGEL: These are the cool button issues right now.

Dr. MATSUSAKA: The cool button issues, yeah.

SIEGEL: Professor Matsusaka, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. MATSUSAKA: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's John Matsusaka of the University of Southern California, where he's president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute.

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