Shopping for the Right Voters is No Sure Thing

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Advocates for big policy changes on the death penalty and property taxation hope that choosing the right ballot will see their cause march to victory. But it is the policy issue rather than shopping the best electorate that will determine the outcome.

Shopping for the best voter turnout for particular ballot measures is part of a political consultants basic handbook on how to pass an initiative. While shopping around for the best environment for success (lawyers do the same court shopping when it comes to policy issues) success in the end is not guaranteed.

There was a clear demonstration of ballot manipulation to create favorable turnouts when the Democratic controlled legislature and Governor Jerry Brown insisted all ballot initiatives appear on a November general election ballot. The general election tends to bring out a more liberal audience than a primary ballot.

Ballot entrepreneurs consider the best ballot for success.

We saw this phenomenon play out a couple of times recently. Supporters of the split roll property tax initiative to raise taxes on commercial property had the ability to qualify the measure with enough signatures for the 2018 election but decided a 2020 election when the prospect of a large majority of Californians venting their displeasure with President Donald Trump would be a better environment for their measure to pass.

Similarly, the backers of Los Angeles schools parcel tax have been excoriated for choosing to put the measure in the low turnout June special election instead of waiting for a higher turnout election with better prospects for support of taxes.

Yet this strategy is not foolproof. In the end, issues matter.

Two initiatives headed for the ballot—the aforementioned split roll and an attempt to do away with the death penalty–are aimed for that 2020 General Election with hopes of a large Democratic turnout in a blue state will produce the 50-percent-plus one vote to gain victory.

Yet, early polling on both issues is not promising—and that is before a campaign is mounted to oppose either issue.

When the Public Policy Institute of California polled on the property tax issue in April, it revealed that 54% of likely voters supported a split roll if some of the new tax money went to K-12 public schools.  That was better than the 49% PPIC recorded with likely voters in January when asked about a split roll but with no mention of schools benefiting.

Still, most initiative experts desire at least a 60% start in early polling in hopes of prevailing on Election Day.

Despite an effort to abolish the death penalty, Proposition 62 failing at the 2016 election, supporters of abolishing the death penalty are considering another run at it in 2020. Why so soon? Because, again, they feel the 2020 election would bring out a favorable electorate.

However, when UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies asked registered voters if they would support a measure to abolish the death penalty and substitute life without the possibility of parole, 53% said no; 46% said yes.

In addition, 61% of the respondents said they would prefer to keep the death penalty on the books as punishment for serious crimes.  Even with a liberal voter turnout it appears abolishing the death penalty would be an uphill battle.

Issues matter.

While a favorable electorate can marginally boost the chances of an initiative passing, it is not a done deal until the voters say so. And even in blue California issues like raising taxes and abolishing the death penalty have enough skeptics across party lines to raise serious doubts about the eventual outcomes.

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