Baiting the Ballot Box

You win, you party. You lose, you ponder.

Not a surprise to those who know me: my party is the one pondering after yesterday’s midterm elections. It occurred to me that one of the challenges candidates face at midterms is low voter turnout. This is of particular concern to Democrats, as younger voters are less likely to vote in midterm elections and younger people tend to take more progressive positions and vote for more liberal candidates. Get out the vote initiatives have historically emphasized encouraging more voters to come to the polls to weigh in on the issues which affect them, and providing supports and infrastructure to physically get voters to the polls. But I wonder if political parties might take a less tactical and more strategic approach; push for the ballot measures which are most likely to incite the strongest emotional reactions in those voters who they’d most like to see at the ballots.

Fox News suggested yesterday that ballot measures on hot button issues — marijuana legalization, marriage equality, gun control or lack thereof, abortion rights — might boost turnout. Political scientists Caroline J. Tolbert and Daniel A. Smith examined the mobilizing effects of statewide ballot measures in previous elections and speculate that ballot measures could play a significant role in future presidential elections. I’m not a political junkie, so I can’t say for sure that turnout was higher in states which had ballot measures on emotionally charged issues. (Though my twenty-something Oregon friends did seem uncharacteristically eager to vote on measure 91.) It occurs to me that if a party knows that some specific segment of the population is (a) more likely to vote if there’s a ballot measure on a specific issue and (b) more likely to elect a candidate which is strategically important, then they might bait the ballot box, so to speak, by getting a measure on the ballot almost solely for the purposes of getting that group of people to the polls.

Cynical? Yes. But today I’m a blue Blue, so you’ll forgive.

Baiting the Ballot Box - Ballot Measures and Voter Turnout

The Bait. Flickr CC license, Hartwig HKD, 2011-08-13.

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