Ballot Measures are a Bad Idea

I think this Maryland activist’s heart is in the right place, but I don’t agree with using referendum to try to overturn gun control laws. While, generally speaking, gun bans have never fared well in ballot referendums, they are a hugely expensive undertaking if you want to have a prayer of winning. Why? Because you have to reach a lot of low-information voters who barely pay attention to your issue, and may not understand it. There’s also very very dire consequences to losing. I cannot stress enough how dire the consequences would be to losing a ballot measure on O’Malley’s gun control package. And losing is a possibility. Why?

Because it comes down to spending. That’s it. Grassroots mobilization is certainly important in a ballot fight, but it’s the money that’s going to get you to a majority for the win. In a battle of our grassroots energy against Bloomberg’s billions, I’ll put my money on our grassroots any day of the week. In a cash fight for low information votes? It’ll be NRA’s money against Bloomberg’s money, and if Bloomberg wants to, he can outspend NRA. So I’m a little amused and more than a little annoyed to see that GOA is getting behind and effort to spend NRA’s money in a ballot fight we could end up losing because we’re up against a billionaire who can outspend us if he wants to. Do you feel confident you can beat a ballot measure with Bloomberg filling the airwaves with images of schoolchildren getting mowed down with automatic weapons? Oh, I know it’s a lie, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is what works, and who has the money to lie the loudest.

NRA is correct in this matter. The courts is the far safer course of action. Those of you who are regular readers know how little faith I have in the courts, so that gives you an idea of how reckless I think our side volunteering for ballot fights is.

4 thoughts on “Ballot Measures are a Bad Idea”

  1. A referendum is bad for a least two reasons: (1) in most jurisdictions the government gets to draft the language of the ballot measure and, to the greatest extent possible, will write it in a way to get their desired result; and (2)it reinforces the mistaken belief that inalienable rights are subject to majority vote.

  2. It’s not the money so much as the energy required to front a plebiscite on civil rights.

    Before everyone starts bashing on NRA for not pushing a referendum (they get beat up no matter what they do and already some people are claiming they are dooming the referendum), the simple answer is they worked with non-NRA state gun groups and basically asked, “what’s your call?”

    The three largest gun orgs in the state – Maryland Shall Issue, Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore and the Western MD Sportsman Coalition – all agreed that we’d rather focus grassroots energy on individual lawmakers who either harmed or helped us, than on a referendum that distracts services from our members.

    I don’t speak for the NRA, but the idea that they did this alone is not the case. As incredible as it sounds to some, the NRA has been very much a team player in Maryland, and that has helped them and us.

    We got a lot closer to winning this year than anyone expected, and 1-2 lawmakers were the margin in some cases. We’re going to fix that as best we can, because even after we win a referendum the cancer (lawmakers averse to civil rights) remains. They’ll just do it again. We prefer a surgical removal of the problems via the ballot box, hopefully to prevent it from spreading.

    The NRA formed up with the state groups. They have been a great supporter in Maryland this last year, and they deserve their praise. But understand that they have joined hands with several groups who in the past had notorious disagreements with them – everybody dropped the drama and worked together. This is another example of the NRA working in concert. They didn’t “break” the referendum. They followed the lead of the many, many members of the state groups who said they didn’t want to go this route.

    Chase the name behind the referendum one more level deep. This is hardly a citizen-led exercise.

  3. Mind if I start thinking out loud, without a firm conclusion in mind?

    I don’t know how much you can generalize about referendums. In 1989 I formed a local group to campaign against Governor Bob Casey (Sr.)’s proposal for a Pennsylvania “Tax Reform” package. I was quickly absorbed by a state group that was a Republican Party front that operated out of then-Sen. Jubelirer’s office in the capitol, where we met.

    The question of how much funding there was on my “Vote No” side will be unknown forever, but the “Vote Yes” side was the state itself. During the campaign I traveled up and down the eastern tier counties debating mostly employees from the state Department of Community Affairs in church basements, high school auditoriums, and at small radio stations. My high point was debating the state Secretary of Community Affairs on Philadelphia network TV. Through all of this I received not one dime in expenses or other material compensation, while I assume the state employees were on the clock and got travel expenses, as did the state legislators on the “Yes” side. But, I would receive large, anonymous packages of printed “Vote No” campaign material in the mail. I’m pretty sure I know its source, but even at this late date it would be speculation. If I received materials worth as much as $1000 I would be very surprised.

    The point of my reminiscing is, the question of how much funding was provided by the administration, using government employees for the “Vote Yes” campaign, versus how much more or less covert money was spent in the “grassroots” “Vote No” campaign. The state spent much more, I believe.

    And yet our “Vote No” side won — hugely. Three-to-one statewide, six-to-one on my home county, and roughly nine-to-one in the municipalities closest to where I lived and pounded the pavements and local talk radio every day.

    I would have to conclude that “funding isn’t everything,” and motivation means a lot. I knew going in that it was going to be easy to plant seeds of doubt in voters’ minds, and that is all that it would take to win a “no” vote. I quickly learned the dirty tricks of debating, by having them played on me in unimportant early venues. The campaigners in the rest of the state were for the most part “professional” politicos at some level (legislators or RP operatives), so I suspect they got some compensation, but I don’t think a huge amount of money was spent.

    Even though the “Vote No” campaign was very much an “astroturf” affair, with the Republican Party operating largely covertly to embarrass a Democratic governor with one of his pet projects, I still believe that to a great extent it really was “grassroots” efforts that won the day. If my experience reflects at all on the scenario in Maryland, I don’t know.

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