How will two hot-button ballot initiatives impact Ohio’s November turnout?
Volunteer poll worker Alex Good helps a Laura Fillman at a ballot marker. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal. Only republish photo with original story.)
Heading into this year’s election season, Ohio voters could wind up voting on two hot button issues at the same time. Election officials are currently combing through petitions for an abortion rights amendment and a recreational marijuana statute that could both go before voters in November.
Received wisdom holds that those hot button ballot issues are good way to juice turnout. Political science literature confirms that to a certain extent, that’s true. But what happens when two show up at once?
University of North Florida political scientist Mike Binder has written extensively on the intersection of initiatives and turnout. He explained they have an impact but called it “conditional.”
“Turnout is impacted in a myriad of different ways and driven typically by the top of the ballot,” Binder said. “So presidential elections for example. Oftentimes the impacts are small because the people that are going to show up to vote at all are motivated by the presidential ticket.”
When it comes to midterms or odd-year elections, though, “that’s where a well-financed or a hot button ballot measure can really impact outcomes.”
Binder argued turnout in November will be relatively high — with an emphasis on relatively. But because odd year turnout is usually so low, the campaigns for abortion rights and marijuana could have a difficult time targeting voters.
“Because you’re going to look back to voter histories and it’s not going to be particularly applicable,” Binder said, “not only just for that election, but also because of those policies.”
With marijuana on the ballot, college-aged voters may turn out at somewhat higher rates. Binder added that unlike abortion, whose supporters tend to have some voting history, marijuana might motivate “hidden voters” who otherwise wouldn’t show up at all.
Regardless of an issue’s salience, Binder stressed that a well-financed campaign for or against an initiative is crucial for turnout. Even an issue with universal appeal won’t bring voters to the polls if they don’t know about it.
Ohio State University political scientist Vladimir Kogan cautioned against over-interpreting the impact of initiatives on the ballot.
“Remember, these are pretty small effect sizes, even if you kind of take the most optimistic estimates,” Kogan explained. “And the increase in turnout you get from these ballot initiatives is still going to dwarf the decrease in turnout you’re going to see compared to say, 2020, or even 2022, because it’s an odd year election.”
In a paper for The American Journal of Political Science, Kogan reviewed how school levies fared in California, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin between 2000 and 2016. Turnout in an average Ohio school district during a presidential election was about 62% of the 2010 voting age population. In a midterm, turnout dropped by 15 points and in odd year election it fell another 8 points.
Even with abortion and marijuana initiatives boosting awareness, he explained, that’s a lot of ground to make up.
And Kogan argued the nature of the electorate in odd-year elections could present a challenge for an initiative’s backers, too.
“The important thing is not the overall turnout but who’s voting,” Kogan said, “and again we know that not only this turnout overall quite different off-cycle but particularly the age profile. Really, it’s a much, much older electorate that votes in these lower turnout elections.”
“Probably not the target demographic for people that are trying to legalize marijuana,” he added.
What the campaigns say
In terms of how the two issues might interact with one another, Binder and Kogan dismiss the idea that they might amplify or cancel one another out. Binder allowed that there are likely voters who would favor one issue and oppose the other, but probably not many. Instead, he described the two issues’ appeal like a Venn diagram — not a complete overlap, but a pretty significant one.
Tom Haren, spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, or CRMLA, downplayed the importance of turnout, period. He argued there has been a precipitous change when it comes to voters’ attitude about recreational marijuana.
“It’s not even a bipartisan issue at this point — it’s a nonpartisan issue,” he said. “It’s something that is supported by Democrats, independents, but also by Republicans.”
Haren argued their proposal will pass, and that it will do so regardless of whether the reproductive rights amendment goes before voters at the same time.
“We’re at a point now where like half the country has already made the decision to regulate marijuana sales to adults,” he added. “I think Ohioans, they’ve been to Michigan, they’ve been to Chicago, they’ve been to Colorado, they’ve been to California. They’ve been to all the states that have done this, and they see that this is a much better alternative to prohibition.”
Kogan seemed puzzled why CRMLA didn’t wait for 2024 given that the presidential electorate will likely be much less conservative. Haren insisted after missing the 2022 race they were determined to get on the ballot as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, a completely different initiative, Issue 1 on August 8, may prove to be an even more consequential driver of turnout. That proposal, sent to the August ballot by state lawmakers, would change the constitution to require any future amendment surpass 60% for adoption. If it passes, it would move the goalposts for the reproductive rights amendment in November — likely spurring a ferocious effort to turn out voters.
Pro-Choice Ohio, which is backing the reproductive rights amendment, latched on to Issue 1, depicting it as just the latest in a string of efforts from “extremist politicians.”
“Gerrymandering in Ohio, the national overturn of Roe, and the assault on voters rights through the August Special Election are all efforts to restrict everyone’s personal freedoms,” the group said in a statement. “We’re confident that these issues will encourage all kinds of voters to turnout in November to get government off our backs.”
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