When the Republican-led Legislature went into overtime last week, they knocked a set of citizen’s initiatives onto an already packed November ballot. In the process, they changed the playing field in a fight for a U.S. Senate seat that their party needs to pick up if they want to take control of Congress. But the shift might not be in their favor.
Caroline Tolbert has studied politics for decades. A professor at the University of Iowa, she’s written dozens of papers on elections and she’s given special attention to the role ballot measures play in them.
Among her big takeaways?
“Ballot measures do have an effect in increasing turnout,” says Tolbert.
And people tend to factor those issues in when they’re voting on candidates. If a measure is popular, voters are more likely to support a candidate who is seen as sympathetic to it.
Alaska voters are looking at three initiatives this November. There’s one to increase the minimum wage, one that would make it harder to build the proposed Pebble Mine, and another that would regulate marijuana like alcohol. There’s also a city-wide question in Anchorage that would repeal a controversial labor law.
Tolbert says that combined, these initiatives could boost turnout by as much as five percent.
“The conditions are ripe for these ballot measure to potentially increase turnout and potentially shape the races in 2014.”
With the caveat that Alaska is uniquely difficult to survey, all three initiatives have polled favorably. They’re especially likely to attract support from younger and often more liberal voters. February results from Public Policy Polling show that 88 percent of people who identify as very liberal support raising the minimum wage, while just 24 percent of people who say they’re very conservative like the hike.
The numbers are similar for marijuana.
Tolbert says this could amount to an advantage for Democrats.
“If there’s going to be a spillover effect from minimum wage, or legalization of marijuana, or an environmental type ballot measure, it should if anything it would have a positive effect on the Democrats running for office,” says Tolbert.
And that advantage could be a special boon to Democratic incumbent Mark Begich, who is fighting off three Republican challengers in the U.S. Senate race. That race is one of the most closely watched in the country, and it’s been listed as a toss-up by all the big political analysts.
None of the Senate campaigns, including Begich’s, would speak to how they see the initiatives affecting the race.
But the initiative campaigns acknowledge their ballot measures could shake things up.
“It has the potential to, without a doubt,” says Art Hackney, a political consultant working on the anti-Pebble Mine initiative. “A lot of that has to do with the candidates as they go forward to the election. I mean I said early on that if they moved them across to the general it would certainly have a big benefit for [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Byron Mallot and Mark Begich.”
That’s because those Democrats have come out against the development of Pebble Mine.
Even though Hackney sees Democrats benefiting, he says initiatives like his should still cross some political lines. He can see a person supporting the anti-Pebble initiative and voting for a Republican ticket. After all, he’s a prime example of that.
On top of his initiative work, Hackney has a portfolio of Republican clients.
“We are involved in a super PAC trying to help Dan Sullivan beat Mark Begich,” says Hackney. “Will we do that heart and soul? Absolutely. If there is some level that Mark Begich will try to trade upon the Pebble issue, so be it.”
Taylor Bickford is a spokesperson for the marijuana initiative, and he’s kind of in the same camp. Like Hackney, he’s mostly worked to get Republicans elected. He also thinks the ballot measure he represents has crossover appeal, especially to the state’s more libertarian leaning voters.
“If you were looking at it objectively, I think it would be safe to say that having the marijuana initiative on the ballot will have some impact on turnout,” says Bickford. “It’s just very, very hard to say how significant that’ll be.”
Of all the initiatives, the minimum wage measure seems to be the one that most obviously helps Democrats.
Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami has been a major backer of the effort. His union has put money into the initiative and helped gather signatures to get it on the ballot. He says his constituency will definitely be coming out to vote on it.
“We’re going to be very motivated and our membership will be very motivated to turn out,” says Beltrami.
Beltrami points out that the Alaska minimum wage initiative was in the works a year before national Democrats seized on it as a strategy. And originally, all of the initiatives were scheduled to be on the primary ballot, alongside a referendum to repeal Gov. Sean Parnell’s law capping oil taxes.
But he says it became apparent the other party was afraid of it after a bloc of Republican state lawmakers tried and failed to pass their own minimum wage hike that would have taken the initiative off the ballot.
“You’d have to be blind not to see the implications that it has on the elections,” says Beltrami.
Now the question is just how big those implications will be.
- The Juneau Assembly declined to pass a broaden sales tax exemption for seniors. Opposition from businesses prodded elected officials to refer the initiative back to committee.
- Fines for pet owners whose for critters scooped up by animal control officers have gone up. The fees hadn't been adjusted for nearly 17 years.
- Local education officials are applying for state money to replace and repair leaky roofs at several Juneau schools. About $5 million is coming in over the next five years earmarked for school maintenance from sales tax money that voters approved in the Oct. 3 election.
- "They’re calling it GTA, grand theft Anchorage, right now," said Rep. Lora Reinbold, who says she wants to repeal Senate Bill 91. "It’s outrageous, what’s going on in the city that I love.”