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Which ballot measure would you rather have a beer with?

Voters routinely back initiatives that clash with their candidate picks — and that’s changing how things get done

In Colorado, liberal enthusiasm propelled Jared Polis into the governor’s mansion. But it wasn’t enough to carry any of three high-profile ballot measures supported by the state Democratic Party. (Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images file photo)
In Colorado, liberal enthusiasm propelled Jared Polis into the governor’s mansion. But it wasn’t enough to carry any of three high-profile ballot measures supported by the state Democratic Party. (Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images file photo)

As voters across the country made their choices last year on ballot issues and political candidates, a disconnect emerged.

While Democrats in Colorado swept statewide races, voters sent a different message on taxes and spending by rejecting ballot measures endorsed by Democrats that would have increased revenue for education and transportation.

Missouri voters embraced traditionally liberal policies and raised the minimum wage, allowed for the use of medicinal marijuana and repealed an anti-union law, but Republican candidates dominated and an incumbent Democratic senator was booted.

Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, easily won re-election, even as voters handily rejected a referendum he backed that would have increased funding for private school vouchers.

In deep-blue Washington state, popular Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee put his political capital behind a measure to establish the nation’s first carbon tax. Voters defeated it by 13 percentage points.

Results in those states and others show voters routinely support ballot initiatives that seem to contradict their choices for candidates, leaving activists pushing for policy change to do so through those measures instead of through their representatives. Increasingly in candidate campaigns, “identity politics” has a stronger influence on voters than policy proposals, said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“Most voters are very loyal to a political party, and that loyalty is not always policy-based or ideological,” Kimball said. “It’s more based on: They like the party because they like the groups associated with that party or because they don’t like groups associated with the other party. Party loyalty is not as issue-based as we think.”

One lesson to be learned from the disconnect is that campaigns still matter, said Alex Conant, a veteran of Republican campaigns and a partner at Firehouse Strategies. Especially for opponents of a state’s dominant party, strong campaigns on ballot measures can provide an opportunity to affect policy.

That may be an increasingly effective strategy in the near future. The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 sent a strong signal that voters prioritized identity over ideology, Conant said.

In fact, parties are defined less by ideology than they ever have been before, he said, a reflection of how much personality and culture, versus principles or policies, unite parties.

“Trump is a great example of that,” Conant said. “Voters don’t look for consistency any longer. They look for cultural identity, in many cases.”

On criminal justice, for example, the GOP doesn’t have a well-defined policy position, which allowed results like Florida’s, where voters approved a measure restoring voting rights to felons while also electing Republicans in closely watched races for governor and U.S. senator.

Stuffing the ballots

Voters are also turning more to citizen-initiated ballot measures, in which citizens can place an issue on the ballot by collecting a required number of signatures.

Such measures are legal in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and they doubled from 35 in 2014 to 71 in 2016, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit elections encyclopedia. In 2018, 68 statewide initiatives qualified for the ballot, still far above the average over past decades, said Josh Altic, the project director for ballot measures at Ballotpedia.

The average number of such measures from 1980 to 2014 was 54, and only 49 from 2008 to 2014, according to Ballotpedia data.

These measures now account for most of the campaign money spent on referenda, Altic said.

“Citizen initiated measures is where all the action is,” he said.

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Advocacy groups have increasingly used ballot measures to enact policies that would be difficult to enact through the legislative process.

“I think one lesson is ballot measures may look more attractive to some folks,” Kimball said. “The advantage of a ballot measure is the party label is removed. So you’re asking voters to look at an issue on its merits, or without the party label as the first way they look at things.”

Scott Sargard, managing director of education policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the group doesn’t have a defined preference for how to achieve its goal of increased funding for public education in needy communities. But he said nonpartisan ballot measures can be an especially useful tool in red states.

“We’re kind of agnostic on that — whatever’s going to be more successful to get resources to the students who need them,” Sargrad said. “It depends on the representation of the legislature versus the views of the voting public. You have some states where that can be very different.”

A classic example, Altic said, is Medicaid expansion in Republican states. Made possible by the 2010 health care law enacted under President Barack Obama, Medicaid expansion is politically unpopular among Republican state lawmakers.

But voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah — three of the most Republican states in the union — all approved expansion of the program in 2018.

Montana rejected a similar ballot measure, even as the state re-elected Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

Not my issue!

In Colorado, liberal enthusiasm generated a double-digit victory at the top of the ticket for the state’s new governor, Jared Polis, a Democrat and former House member who ran on a platform that included free preschool and full-day kindergarten access. But it wasn’t enough to carry any of three high-profile ballot measures the state Democratic Party backed.

Before and after Election Day, Polis distanced himself from the initiatives, which would have created income tax brackets and levied increased taxes on top earners to fund $1.6 billion for education, increased sales taxes to pay for highways and transit and set a limit on how close to buildings oil and gas drillers can operate.

Though the state party backed all three, Polis endorsed none, and he reminded the Denver Post of it in a post-election interview.

“Those were not our proposals,” he told the paper.

Mike Dino, a lobbyist and Democratic strategist in Colorado, said the votes on the ballot measures won’t impact Polis’ agenda. The governor ran on three main promises: increasing access to health care, providing universal pre-kindergarten and supporting renewable energy — none of which were explicitly rejected in the ballot measure results.

“Voters have to have some sense of what it means to put Colorado Democrats in charge,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “Jared Polis was pretty upfront about the policies he was favoring. … Voters had the opportunity to reject him for it and they didn’t.”

But Colorado Republicans say the results show voters want to limit Democrats’ reach.

“With proper funding and proper messaging, the Republican position can win in Colorado, even in the midst of a blue wave,” said Daniel Cole, a spokesman for the Colorado Republican Party. The results “said to the Democrats that we the voters put you in power temporarily but we’re not writing you a blank check.”

In Missouri, Kimball said the Republican-dominated legislature is already considering a law to replace one limiting union power that was repealed through a ballot measure. But the results, where Missourians voted by a more than 2-1 margin to repeal the law, gave pause to some, he said.

“It certainly slows down the policy agenda of the majority party if voters approve measures that go against it,” he said.

But Conant said authenticity is more important to voters than ever. Changing policy positions based on the results of a ballot measure is a bad look.

In Polis’ case, his liberal agenda is entwined with his electoral “brand,” Conant said. Even if voters don’t primarily base their decisions on policy, they can sense opportunism and they don’t like it.

“Politicians get in trouble when they try and change their brand,” he said. “Voters aren’t voting for you because they agree with you; they’re voting for you because they like you, because they connect with you on some level. If you try to change who you are to better position yourself ideologically, you’re learning the wrong lessons.”

Inslee, Washington’s governor, perhaps tried to thread that needle in his most recent budget proposal. After voters rejected the carbon tax initiative he championed, Inslee rolled out a $268 million climate change plan that didn’t include new taxes or increases. The package would require all electricity in Washington to be generated by carbon-neutral sources by 2030 and the elimination of fossil fuels by 2045, among other provisions.

Asked if a carbon tax was still possible, the governor didn’t rule it out, but said voters had rejected his first choice so he was moving to “Plan B.”

Different strokes

The results in Colorado were particularly stark.

Against the rejection of ballot issues that would have increased revenue for transportation and education, Democrats in the state achieved a genuine “blue wave,” the state GOP’s Cole said. Besides Polis’ victory, Democrats flipped the state Senate, made gains in the General Assembly they already controlled and picked off a U.S. House seat. The party will control every statewide office and both houses of the legislature for the first time since 1936.

But the resistance to tax increase measures there is not unusual, according to University of Denver’s Masket.

“Coloradans are very resistant to that kind of thing, even while voting for Democrats who will pursue policies along those lines,” Masket said.

A 1992 Colorado constitutional amendment requires that taxes may be increased only through ballot measures, which have been notoriously difficult to pass. Democratic candidates are more focused on their own races and hesitant to risk their chances by associating with proposals to raise taxes, which likely don’t perfectly align with their own priorities or campaign messages.

Polis may have had that in mind when he declined to support the measures backed by the state party.

Lawmakers could still use more budgetary resources and flexibility to manage challenges facing the growing state, Dino said. The system that requires voters to approve tax increases may need to be changed.

“There needs to probably be a bigger conversation that the governor has to be a part of and has to lead, probably, to say, ‘How do we reform our fiscal constraints to give us more flexibility in solving health care, transportation, education challenges,’” he said.

Colorado’s results, especially on the funding, ran counter to the national trend on fiscal ballot measures. About two-thirds of ballot measures to either expand or constrain fiscal flexibility of states and localities passed, according to a Brookings Institution study by Nathan Arnosti and Michael A. Pagano.

Arnosti said there was “not a single, broad takeaway” to be gleaned from the results of budget policy ballot measures in states across the country. As in Colorado, there are state-specific explanations for what voters decided.

The circumstances — how much money opponents and proponents poured in, the specifics of the proposal and other factors — are different on every initiative. Individual results can’t be explained by a single nationwide narrative.

Colorado Democrats point to the high bar required for voters to raise their own taxes.

Initiatives to raise the minimum wage virtually never fail, Altic said.

That provides cover for Missouri Republicans.

“The trick with all these is that they all have their own complicating factors,” Arnosti said. 

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