WSW: When Does A Ballot Issue Influence Other Elections?

Jun 18, 2018

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Credit Andy Robins / WMUK

A Western Michigan University Political Science Professor says a ballot issue can influence other races on the ballot, but John Clark says it requires the right circumstances. 


Some observers believe the proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in Michigan could help Democrats on the ballot in November. Clark says legalizing marijuana is an issue which polls better with younger people, who traditionally turnout in lower percentages than older voters. He says that combined with younger voters being more likely to vote for Democratic candidates could mean that a ballot issue on legalizing marijuana helps Democrats. Clark says an issue that changes the makeup of the electorate can have an impact on other races. 

"Using it as a way to change the shape of the electorate the composition of the electorate, that's where you have the potential in a close race to tip the balance."

Clark says the example most often cited of a ballot issue influencing another election is the 2004 race for President in Ohio. The state’s electoral votes provided the winning margin for President George W. Bush’s re-election victory that year while voters also approved a ban on same sex marriage. Clark says the key was that conservative churches in Ohio organized to make sure that supporters of the ban on gay marriage would get to the polls.

“Using it as a way to change the shape of the electorate the composition of the electorate, that’s where you have the potential in a close race to tip the balance.”

Asked if the influence can happen the other way and votes for candidates influence whether ballot issues pass, Clark says it’s possible. He says it comes back to who shows up. If a race at the top of the ticket brings out people who don’t normally vote, then a ballot issue could pass in one year, when it wouldn’t pass in a different election year.

Clark says a large number of proposals on the ballot can leave voters feeling overwhelmed. He says many voters may skip the ballot proposals, or he says they may vote “no,” to maintain the status quo. The proposal to legalize marijuana is the only one that has been certified for the ballot. But several others could be decided by voters in November. Clark says several ballot issues can mean that very few of them pass. He says that could mean a lot of money spent on ballot issues, with little change in public policy.