Paul Ryder, Organizing
Updated February 17, 2009
the technical requirements for a successful citizens ballot
initiative in Ohio and the political keys to victory.
The two petition-based
ballot issues on the 2008 statewide ballot did
not give clues to winning, since both lost for the usual reasons. The
paid sick days proposal (Issue 4), pulled from the ballot by its
sponsor, did provide
an important lesson for citizens considering a ballot initiative: The
campaign must be independent. If it is not, if it is controlled by part
status quo, it risks being smothered by the status quo.
circumstances, a ballot issue campaign can be a
powerful tactic, changing or even reversing the tide of an issue,
creating new law and a new political mandate in one stroke. Under the
wrong circumstances, it can be a setback.
Anyone contemplating a ballot drive should treat it with the respect it
deserves. Make it your business to know the history of ballot
issues and the applicable provisions of the law, and think
carefully through every aspect of the proposed campaign. In ten ballot campaigns
so far, Ohio Citizen Action has six victories and four defeats.
What kind of
If you are
considering a local ballot issue, consult your local charter and
ordinances; every local jurisdiction is different.
Statewide, there are four kinds of ballot issues:
amendment by initiative petition
A successful signature drive puts this directly on the ballot.
After an initial signature drive, a proposed statute goes to the
legislature for consideration. If the legislature kills it, or does
nothing, or amends it in a way not acceptable to the petitioners, a
second signature drive can put it on the ballot.
Immediately after a law is passed, petitioners can put it on the ballot
with a signature drive. A majority "no" vote throws out the law.
- Measures put on the
ballot by the legislature
No signature drive is needed; these measures tend to be
To think through these choices,
read first the primary applicable provisions of the Ohio Constitution,
II, Sec. 01a-01g (initiatives and referenda), and Article
XVI (constitutional amendments), and the Ohio Revised Code, Chapter
3519 (elections). Reading these sections is no substitute for
competent legal advice, which you must have prior to deciding to begin
a campaign. Election laws are complicated, changing and unforgiving.
signatures would we have to get?
It depends on what kind of ballot
issue you are going for.
amendment by initiative
The required percent
is applied to the size of the statewide electorate, defined as the
number of voters in the last gubernatorial election. In 2006, 4,022,754
Ohioans voted in the general election for governor. 10% of that is
After you turn in the signatures,
the boards of elections will scrutinize them for errors. Some
signatures and some whole petitions will be rejected. The legal
requirements are 'net' signatures, that is, the number of signature
declared valid by the boards of elections after they have checked the
How many gross signatures you need
depends on how you gather them. If you go door-to-door with a 'walking
list' of registered voters, the percentage of valid signatures will be
relatively high. If you collect signatures on a sidewalk downtown or
outside a K-Mart, the percentage will be lower.
Under the best of circumstances,
gather 50% more signatures than the required number of valid
signatures. For example, since a constitutional amendment requires
402,276 valid signatures, collect 603,414.
There are different time
restrictions for signature gathering for each kind of ballot issue;
check the law closely.
we get enough signatures in time?
In the heat of a
campaign it is easy to imagine a signature drive succeeding on the
infectious enthusiasm of wave after wave of new volunteers. This is
possible, but rare. Almost always, a signature drive succeeds through
sheer organizational brute force or paid solicitors or a combination of
Create a signature budget,
including where they will come from, how many, and when and how many
signatures you will have to turn over to the Secretary of State on what
date. The signature budget requires the same accountant-like attention
to detail as the campaign's money budget.
In your signature, only count those
signatures over which you have direct control, including those from --
Don't put any other promised
signatures in the budget. At the beginning of the signature drive, many
people and groups will promise signatures: "I'll bring in 500
signatures by the end of the month. No problem." This is
great; give them encouragement, and training if necessary, and
follow-up regularly. Do not, however, put these promised signatures in
the signature budget until you have the completed petitions in hand.
Most such promises are not fulfilled, so don't gamble the ballot drive
on them. Those that do come in will be happy surprises.
- your own organization,
- another organization
you know well, if it has a good track record of gathering signatures
and if it has made a firm commitment, or
- a hired petitioning
firm with a good track record
Don't start the ballot drive unless
your signature budget balances, that is, until you know how you're
going to gather the required number of signatures on time.
The cost of the signature drive
itself depends on how you gather them. It is important to cost this out
carefully, but as a rough rule of thumb, expect the drive to cost about
$1/gross signature collected, or $1.50/valid signature required.
II. Keys to the outcome
it be contested?
If you can pass the
measure through the legislature or, if a constitutional amendment, have
the legislature put it on the ballot, do it that way. It's much easier.
Only consider a ballot drive if
powerful opponents are blocking you in the legislature. You have to
assume that, if they are blocking you in the legislature, they will try
to block you on the ballot as well.
It is possible, of course, that
even powerful adversaries will decide not to oppose the measure once it
is on the ballot. This happened, for example, in 1992 when the Ohio
Roundtable, Ohio Citizen Action and other groups put term limits on the
Ohio ballot. State House lobbyists and incumbents hated the proposal,
but saw that no amount of money on TV ads could stop the measure from
winning. They folded.
Notwithstanding this possibility,
you must assume at the outset that there will be a tough contest.
Is the issue
already well-defined in the voters' minds?
If voters already have a fix on
what this is about, neither side will have much success in changing
their minds, regardless of how many TV ads they buy. If not, then there
will be a race by the two sides to define it in voters' minds first;
whoever wins this race wins the vote.
Do you have enough
money to win?
It costs a lot of
money to run a ballot issue campaign, but not as much as some think.
The opponents might spend $5 million to $10 million on television ads,
but this does not mean that you have to spend that much to win. You
just need to spend
enough to get your message across to the voters.
Ohio is one of the four toughest
states in which to do this. The other three are Texas, Florida and
California. In these four big states, you can't buy TV time in the one
dominant TV market because there isn't one. There are a half-dozen
important media markets to buy time in, and that is costly.
In Ohio, all other things being
equal, it costs at least $1.5 million to get your message across to the
voters. If you can raise that much, and the other factors are in your
favor, you can beat anyone. In the 1997 workers compensation referendum
campaign, for example, a $2.4 million 'no' campaign beat a $7.8 million
'yes' campaign, in 87 out of 88 counties, and by 57% to 43% statewide.
As with the signature budget, do
not begin the campaign unless the money budget balances, that is, you
know where the money is going to come from on time.
Are the proposal
and the message simple?
Given the little time voters have to
concentrate on the issue, and the practical difficulties of reaching
millions of them in a few weeks, a complicated message simply won't
register with enough people.
Further, if you need a 'yes' vote
to win, and your proposal is complex, the opponents will be much more
likely to find some detail in an obscure provision that they can twist
beyond recognition, and then use to attack the whole thing.
Legislators pass many complicated
bills; voters don't.
Is this a "yes"
vote or a "no" vote?
Voters are properly cautious. If
they are not sure about an issue, they will vote 'no'. This gives a big
advantage to the 'no' side in a ballot issue campaign. They don't need
to make a solid case against the issue, or even have any credibility.
All that is required is to sow enough doubt or confusion in the voters'
minds, and they win.
III. Clues from history
Between 1950 and 2006,
statutory initiatives, constitutional amendments and referenda have
been put on the ballot by petition. Nine won: six single
measures and the three term limits amendments.
For the purpose of learning how
citizens can win, we can discard two of these:
- In 1977,
voters passed a constitutional amendment repealing election-day voter
registration. The measure had been put on the ballot with signatures
gathered by the Republican Party. GOP Secretary of State Ted Brown
wrote a ballot summary which hid its real purpose, saying it would
"provide that a person is entitled to vote at all elections if he has
been registered to vote for 30 days and has the other qualifications an
an elector." 52% of the electorate voted for this seemingly innocuous
proposal. When voters learned what Brown had done, they passed a
constitutional amendment -- put on the ballot by the legislature -- to
give the job of writing ballot summaries to the Ballot Board, of which
the Secretary of State was only one member.
- The 1994
pop tax issue won with $8 million of soda pop industry money buying TV
ads promoting it, while opponents spent $150,000. It was a simple
The other seven winners give us
useful clues. They tell us under what circumstances citizens can win an
Ohio ballot issue:
- Term limits (1992) was
uncontested, pre-defined in the voters' minds, with a simple proposal
and message. Given these strengths, it didn't require a threshold of TV
dollars, and it didn't matter that it required a 'yes' vote.
- The workers comp
referendum (1997) had the threshold amount of TV money, a simple
message of worker safety, and only needed a 'no' vote to win. These
advantages prevailed in a highly contested campaign in which the losers
outspent the winners by 3-to-1.
definition-of-marriage issue (2004) was pre-defined in voter's minds as
a moral statement of little practical consequence, and the opposition
- The minimum wage
increase (2006) was similar to the term limits issue in that it was
over before it began. It was so well-defined that proponents could win
without spending anything on television or radio. The issue was --
- Weakly contested: Opponents spent $1,557,763 on
media. That would be just enough to convey a simple convincing message.
The opponents' message, however, was anything but simple or convincing:
"Issue 2 is more than the minimum wage . . . an open invitation to
identity theft and fraud . . . release your personal payroll records .
. . on the internet for thieves around the world".
- Well-defined in voters minds before the campaign
started. There was a general awareness of a big problem, showing up in
many ways, such as grown children moving back home to save money,
Wal-Mart employees on welfare, or the "shrinking middle class." The
Ohio measure was part of a nationwide trend, winning easily in six of
six states this year: Arizona (66% to 34%), Colorado (53% to 47%),
Missouri (76% to 24%), Montana (73% to 27%), Nevada (69% to 31%), and
Ohio (56% to 44%).
- Proponents had enough money for a strong
television buy, but instead spent it all on get-out-the-vote
activities, which they believed would benefit all Democratic
candidates. These expenditures included "robocalls" ($345,735),
mailings ($529,950), and get-out-the-vote canvassing ($907,808 to
Citizens Services, part of New Orleans-based Association of Community
Organizations for Reform Now -- ACORN.
- The proposal and the message were simple:
Everyone knows what a minimum wage is.
- The issue required a "yes" vote, which is
typically more difficult to win, but the other keys to winning were so
strong that it didn't matter.
- The smoking ban issue
(2006) was historic: In 43 Ohio ballot campaigns by petition since
1950, it marked the first example of a contested issue, requiring a
'yes' vote, in which the citizens side had a significant amount of
money for television ads and a simple message. Its passage was not only
a big victory for public health, it showed the way for future citizen
- It was contested, with the tobacco industry
spending $3,116,562 on media. The main tactic used by opponents was a
competing similar-sounding ballot issue. The competing issue was a
Constitutional amendment, rather than the statutory change mandated by
the smoking ban. Accordingly, had both issues won, the Constitutional
measure would have overridden the statutory change, and had both lost,
the status quo would continue. The only way the smoking ban could
prevail would be if the voters could pick their way through the ballot,
voting for the smoking ban and against the competing similar-sounding
- The issue was well-defined in voters minds long
before the campaign began. The dangers of second-hand smoke have been
understood for decades.
- Citizen proponents had a significant amount of
money to get their message across to the voters. The $1,272,358 they
spent on media fell short of the $1.5 million conventional wisdom says
is required to get a message across to Ohio voters. In this case, it
didn't matter because of the considerable free news coverage of the
trick the tobacco industry was trying to play on Ohio voters. Given
this, and the low credibility of the tobacco industry, every television
message for the industry-sponsored measure served as a reminder to
voters not to be tricked.
- The citizen campaign had the self-discipline to
keep their proposal and message simple.
- As above, to win, the issue required both a 'yes'
vote for one issue, and a "no" vote on another, so it had to rely on an
attentive, educated electorate.
- In 2008, both
measures put on the state ballot by
The payday lending referendum (Issue 5), was sponsored by the payday
lending industry, which put $20,653,933 into the campaign to pass it.
They were opposed by a grassroots campaign which raised only $547,413.
If money were all that mattered, the payday loan industry would have
prevailed easily. Instead it was drubbed statewide, 64% - 36%, and in
87 of 88 counties. The issue was well understood by the voters before
the campaign began, and they had a strong antipathy for predatory
lenders. In addition, Ohio newspaper editorial boards leveled tough
on the lenders. This was too much for the industry to overcome.
The casino gambling constitutional amendment (Issue 6) became an
all-out TV war between gambling interests, with $25,693,401 in favor
and $38,688,978 against.
The measure failed, 38% - 62%, not because of the spending differential
but because Ohio voters have set views on the subject. The 2008 ballot
issue was the fourth time
since 1990 that Ohio voters had rejected a gambling measure.
The 2008 election also featured an issue that didn't appear on the
ballot: Issue 4, the
paid sick days measure. The Service Employees International Union had
gathered sufficient signatures for it to appear on the ballot. On
September 4, however, the union pulled the
bowing to pressure from Governor Ted Strickland and other Ohio
Democratic Party officials. The lesson for citizens considering a
ballot issue is that
the campaign must be independent. If it is not, if it is controlled by
a part of the
status quo, it risks being smothered by the status quo.