Ballot Measures Defeated Nationwide

Several highly touted ballot initiatives were defeated in yesterday’s off-off-year elections.

Cost-conscious voters rejected school vouchers for Utah students, state-sponsored stem cell research in New Jersey and higher cigarette taxes in Oregon to fund health care for uninsured children. Texans, meanwhile, authorized up to $3 billion in bonds over 10 years to create a cancer research center, one of the few closely watched ballot measures across the nation that voters approved Tuesday.

New Jersey voters had not killed a statewide ballot measure since 1990. The rejection was a defeat for Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who campaigned heavily for the plan to borrow $450 million over 10 years to finance stem cell research. “The public understands the state has serious financial issues that must be addressed first,” Corzine spokeswoman Lili Stainton said.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski also blamed money after voters opted not to raise the cigarette tax by 84.5 cents a pack — to $2.02 — to fund health insurance for about 100,000 children lacking coverage. Tobacco companies opposing the measure outspent supporters by a 4-1 margin, contributing nearly $12 million. “What happened was, the tobacco industry bought the election,” the Democratic governor told The Associated Press.

Utah voters killed the nation’s first statewide school voucher program open to all children, not just those from low or middle-income families. It was the first voucher election in the U.S. since 2000, when voters in Michigan and California rejected efforts to subsidize private schools. There have been 11 state referendums on various voucher programs since 1972, all of them unsuccessful, according to the National School Boards Association.

Utah, with a conservative electorate, a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature, was seen nationally as a key test of voter sentiment for vouchers. But opponents, with millions of dollars from a national teachers union, persuaded residents to say no. Experts had said a green light in Utah could have led to similar programs in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and elsewhere.

Ballot initiatives often wind up being dominated by interested minorities, who are more easily mobilized. That’s especially true when they’re run in low turnout special elections rather than on the ballot with presidential or gubernatorial races.

A few years ago, Alabama had a very controversial ballot measure to authorize a state-sponsored lottery, modeled on Georgia’s highly regarded Hope Scholarship program, to fund education improvements. It was overwhelmingly popular in the statewide polling running up to the election and expected to pass easily. Instead, the reverse happened because a coalition of Republican-leaning white evengalicals and Democratic-leading black churches mobilized their congregations to defeat the measure.

There’s no doubt, then, that tobacco and teachers union money would have been highly influential in the Oregon and Utah contests. Not only could they mobilize turnout, but they had more resources to flood the airwaves with persuasive advertising.

That said, both measures had tough hills to climb ideologically. Even devout non-smokers should be easy to persuade that a $2.02 per pack tax on cigarettes is onerous and that forcing these people — who are disproportionately poor, elderly, or uneducated — to pay for the general good is unfair. And the argument that vouchers could seriously harm the public schools while not providing enough money for the poor to afford private education is a powerful one.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve Plunk says:

    Oregon’s governor Kulongoski whines about private money but ignores the power of the state government’s role in the election. You can’t forget it was the legislature, not the people, who put this on the ballot.

    More than the money I believe it was the fact this was an amendment to the state constitution rather than a statutory change. The legislature purposely made it so to avoid the 50% turnout requirement for tax increases. They couldn’t pass it themselves since they needed a super-majority. Citizens could see this was political game playing.

    The “big tobacco” money did little more than educate the electorate. It did not buy the election as sleepy Ted says.