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Gay Marriage Among Looming Ballot Issues
Thursday March 30, 2006 9:46 AM
By DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The divisive issues that spurred voter turnout in 2004 and helped decide the presidency will be back with a vengeance in November.
This time, they could shift the balance of power in the Senate, an outcome with broad implications for the remaining two years of President Bush's term, and could affect governor's races in states certain to comprise the presidential battleground landscape in 2008.
Ballot initiatives that would define marriage, raise the minimum wage, ban affirmative action hiring and endorse embryonic stem-cell research are among the measures that have been gaining the necessary signatures to earn a spot on the Nov. 7 ballot in several states.
Initiatives stating that life begins at conception, limiting the growth of government spending and promoting renewable energy sources also could end up on the ballot on Election Day.
Such issues could bring more voters out in states such as Missouri, Ohio and Montana, where the results of competitive Senate races could determine whether Republicans keep majority control or Democrats break the GOP lock on Congress.
``Initiatives tend to shape turnout substantially in non-presidential elections,'' said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
On Election Day in 2004, a presidential year, initiatives on gay marriage and civil unions were on the ballot in 11 states, driven in part by opposition to a Massachusetts state Supreme Judicial Court's recognition of same-sex marriage and Republican calculations that the issue would send conservative voters to the polls. Two states - Louisiana and Missouri - had approved bans earlier in the year.
Bush benefited as religious conservatives, a key element of the GOP base, turned out to vote and helped him defeat Democratic Sen. John Kerry. In Ohio, an initiative rejecting the legality of civil unions won handily. The same state tipped the election to Bush.
Gary Bauer, the head of Americans United to Preserve Marriage, said there was no doubt the amendment and the thousands who voted for it helped Bush win Ohio.
``The only thing that explains the president's victory in my view is the emphasis he put in those closing weeks on the marriage issue,'' said Bauer, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
Analysts and academics who have studied election results say initiatives in midterm elections are about twice as likely to increase turnout by a few percentage points as measures on the ballot in presidential elections.
``One or two initiatives on the ballot during these (midterm) elections may be sufficient to stimulate increased participation, especially if the measures concern salient or controversial policy questions, such as gay marriage or affirmative action,'' wrote Caroline J. Tolbert of Kent State University and Daniel A. Smith of the University of Florida.
Their report on the impact of initiatives on turnout appeared in the March 2005 issue of American Politics Research.
Absent the cacophony of the presidential campaign, the ballot initiative issues often become the issues of the Senate or gubernatorial campaigns.
``When they're on the ballot, it means the candidate can't ignore them,'' Garrett said.
In Missouri, a ballot measure on stem-cell research has complicated the re-election campaign of Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who is in a tight race with Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill.
The initiative would guarantee that any federally allowed stem-cell research or treatments can occur in Missouri. The conservative Talent had backed a federal bill to criminalize the cloning of human embryos. He recently dropped his support for that bill but has not taken a stand on the ballot initiative. McCaskill supports the measure.
Tennessee is one of six states likely to have a ballot initiative on gay marriage. In November, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages. They also will choose a successor to Republican Sen. Bill Frist in what could be a competitive contest between the leading Democrat, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and one of the top Republican candidates - former Reps. Van Hilleary or Ed Bryant, and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.
Brad Luna, media director for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group, argued that the Iraq war, efforts to rebuild the Gulf Coast and other issues are of greater concern to voters than gay marriage.
``That same old dog-and-pony show from 2004 is kind of played out,'' he said.
In Montana, where the lobbying scandal has taken a toll on the political standing of Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, there is a real pocketbook issue that could be on the ballot and affect voter turnout: raising the state's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour, a dollar more than the federal minimum.
In fact, six states could have a minimum wage increase on the ballot in November, including Ohio, which has a competitive Senate and governor's race.
Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said activists on her side recognize that these initiatives are electoral tools that could drive voter turnout, a factor she said conservatives clearly recognize.
``In 2006, these initiatives speak to the struggle in this country to define the role of government,'' Wilfore said.
While California frequently leads the pack with dozens of initiatives, Michigan could have a handful, including a state constitutional amendment banning university and state hiring preferences based on race or sex.
``It's actually motivating the Democratic base,'' Jon Summers, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, said following conversations with people in Michigan.
On the Web:
American Politics Research: http://apr.sagepub.com/