Setting the Table: If a diverse set of advocacy groups all have their way, the November 2016 ballot will be as bountiful as a Thanksgiving table. There has been talk for months that anywhere from 2 to 6 ballot questions to amend the New Jersey Constitution, could be placed on the presidential ballot. North Jersey casinos, dedication of gas tax, voting rights and redistricting, pension requirements, millionaires tax, and now even marijuana regulation are all under consideration. There is a frenzied excitement about the high turnout a presidential election will bring out as the golden opportunity to bring about change.
The expectation is that all these amendments will require concurrent resolutions passed twice (once in lame duck and once in the new Legislative session that starts in January of 2016), as they will not get the support of a super majority. Time is quickly running out for decisions to be made and we, the voters, might want to consider getting involved in the process.
Cooking the Turkey and all the Sides: Passing a ballot initiative in New Jersey is no easy task. Drop off rates on ballots are high – people go to vote for candidates and often skip the questions at the bottom. So there has to be education both about the question being voted on and a constant drum beat reminding people to vote ‘down ballot’ or vote ‘from the bottom up’. That messaging is made more difficult in a year with a presidential election because our means of communications – direct mail, earned and paid media, events, etc. are all focused on and saturated by presidential elections.
The challenge is compounded when we have multiple questions on the ballot. The more questions placed on the ballot, the less likely voters are to vote on any of them and the more likely the votes will be no votes. Many voters tune out because there is too much to process. The risk of voter confusion is certainly a legitimate concern when considering the laundry list of possible questions for next year. Voting rights and redistricting are multi-faceted and complex, marijuana regulation is controversial, pension funding is divisive, gas tax dedication is an uphill battle based on polling, and north Jersey casino gambling divides our state geographically in terms of support. The challenge of educating voters on multiple questions and directing them towards the desired vote becomes much harder when we ask voters to decide on a litany of complicated issues all at once.
It would be a monumental effort to pass a mix of these questions on the 2016 ballot and the defeat of most any of these would be a significant set back (not so sure about north Jersey gambling). A well run campaign against any single one of the questions could spell disaster for all of them. Strategically, opponents have the upper hand in what would be a messy and expensive campaign with resources and capacity spread thin.
Legislators and advocates are busy jockeying for their favorites – perhaps with an eye on the broader challenge of a packed ballot. But frankly, we should not leave this to rushed lame duck conversations and political horse trading. We had better start to speak up now before we have to defend a ballot that reads like a Jersey diner menu.
Who is Sitting at the Table: This is symptomatic of a broader progressive problem that needs to be addressed not just for the 2016 ballot, but also for 2017 – the gubernatorial race. If progressives want to set the agenda for the next two years, and elect a governor we know will support our agenda, we need to sit down together to prioritize that agenda. If we continue to work in silos, advocating with passion for our preferred causes, we run the risk of winning none of them. And we greatly increase the opportunity for Legislators and candidates to ignore our demands because there are too many coming at them too fast.
In this current battle of the ballot questions, some advocates may prevail, while others not, but collectively we all lose if we do not have a united strategy for victory. Imagine the collective strength of our progressive bench if we came together to make a clear set of prioritized demands – for the 2016 ballot, the next legislative cycle, and of those interested in being our next Governor.
Some may say it is too idealistic or even naive to think that broad and diverse progressive interests could come together. But just as we gathered around Thanksgiving tables last week with family and friends, not all of whom see the world exactly like we do, it seems an appropriate time to ask if we might not be able to at least try.