Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Successfully Using Ballot Measures for Environmental Protection

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy and Sally Cross. 1998. Successfully Using Ballot Measures. Wild Earth. Vol. 8, No. 1. Spring. 72-75. 

By Sally J. Cross and Andy Kerr

The 1998 initiative season is well underway; around the country, numerous new environmental initiatives are being considered. Many will fail to get enough signatures even to qualify for the ballot. If recent history is any guide, most of those that do qualify are headed for defeat.

The 1996 election delivered a serious blow to the environmental agenda when voters in several states defeated measures that would have increased environmental protections. Most of these measures were not just narrowly defeated, but were trounced: margins of only 35-40% for the environmental side were common.

Winning a ballot measure battle is never easy, but recent pro-conservation initiative campaigns have failed to include several of the most basic components necessary to win. We believe that the environmental movement can and should break this losing streak, and reverse the trend of public rejection of measures that strengthen environmental protections at the state (or local) level.

It is possible to take on a well-financed, well-organized opposition and win. For example, in the last four elections, a coalition of animal rights activists has beaten the National Rifle Association and the trophy hunting industry, systematically winning measures to ban certain types of hunting. This coalition has been successful in seven states, winning 10 of 13 initiatives, including two attempts to repeal earlier wins. The success of their approach has been demonstrated in politically divergent states, suggesting that it provides a good model for successful initiative campaigns.

One of the main architects of this election-winning strategy is Wayne Pacelli of the Humane Society USA (HSUS). His suggestions for a winning campaign strategy are very simple, but have been ignored by environmentalists in many recent ballot measure campaigns. (Please note that our criticisms of losing initiatives are also self-directed; during our tenure, the Oregon Natural Resources Council was also guilty of not following Wayne's Rules, particularly in its failed 1994 chemical mining initiative.)

“Wayne's Rules”

1. Do Your Research to Write a Winning Measure

Polling and focus group research is the only way to know which components of a possible measure have strong voter support, and which arguments against the measure can lead to its defeat. Such research can be expensive--as much as $25-35,000 in a relatively small state like Oregon. But it's a small cost when compared to spending hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of dollars, and thousands of hours of staff and volunteer time to promote a measure that your opponents are sure to defeat.

Elections are not won or lost based on the votes of the small core of committed conservation voters. Winning requires gaining the support of the swing voters who support environmental protection, but are not knowledgeable about the issues or unshakable in their support. These are the key voters who are apt to be confused or misled by your opponents, and thus vote “no” on your measure. Most measures start with very high public support that is eroded once the opposition's campaign begins. The trick is to hold that erosion of support among swing voters to a level that will allow your side to poll at least 50% plus one vote on election day.

2. Keep it Simple

Including highly unpopular or complicated provisions, such as those allowing for citizen suits, is the kiss of death for a ballot item. Your opponents will effectively capitalize on the public's dislike of lawyers and frivolous lawsuits; beware of handing them the means to clobber your measure.

Not every issue is a good candidate for the ballot box. The National Environmental Policy Act, for instance, wouldn't have been a good candidate for an initiative. Complicated, lengthy, legalistic language lends itself to a classic negative campaign tactic--portraying the measure as adding “red tape,” “big government bureaucracy,” and “confusing” rules that will hurt the average citizen. Two Oregon environmental initiatives, four years apart, addressing very different subjects (plastics recycling and cyanide heap leach mining regulation) were hit by their opponents with essentially identical ads of this nature.

A dilemma often arises at this point: what proponents believe is necessary for environmental protection goes beyond, or is more complicated, than what the voters will accept. While gut wrenching, the only winning response is to figure out a different tactic to achieve your goals.

3. Run an All-Volunteer Signature Drive

Qualifying a measure for the ballot is hard work; proponents need at least 4,000 hours of volunteer time to gather the required signatures. Putting that into perspective, a person working 40 hours per week for 50 weeks (a standard work year) works 2,000 hours. Recent environmental measures have followed the national trend of paying signature gatherers. That's an expense of tens or even hundreds of thousands of scarce campaign dollars better saved for TV and radio ads in the final weeks. A chronic syndrome of failed environmental ballot measures has been the ability of sponsors to raise enough money to get on the ballot, but not enough to mount an effective (winning) campaign. Completing the signature drive with volunteers saves money for media. If the required signatures cannot be collected with volunteers, it is strong evidence that the broad grassroots support necessary to help win an election is missing.

Of course, an all-volunteer effort isn't free. It takes the work of full-time organizers to recruit, train, and motivate volunteers to go out and collect signatures.

4. Match Opponents' Paid Media

Grassroots support is very important in a ballot measure campaign, but in itself is not enough to win. As a rule, the side that spends the most money wins. Few, if any, campaigns win if they're outspent by more than a ratio of 3-to-1. Environmental measure supporters typically have been outspent by their opponents by margins of 7 or 8 to as much as 100-to-1. If the opponents will spend millions of dollars to defeat the measure, proponents must raise and spend a similar amount or, at the very least, one-third of it.

Most voters get their information from TV and radio, not earned (“free”) media like news stories. The campaign that dominates the airwaves in the three weeks before the election sets the debate--and usually wins. In Oregon, where citizens are beginning to vote by mail, the critical window of voter attention is longer--and more expensive--than ever.

An adequate purchase of radio and television ads for a state campaign often costs hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to correctly position the ballot item and convince voters to support it. Of course, if the opponents are spending more, so must the proponents.

5. Beat the Opponents at the Grassroots

Increasingly, slick direct mail and phone campaigns are used to supplement paid media. This is where a strong grassroots campaign can match paid resources for significantly less money. Targeted phoning and door-to-door canvassing can identify and recruit supporters, and turn out targeted voters. Volunteers are also crucial for organizing speakers bureaus, writing letters-to-the-editor, and developing an earned media campaign. After weaving the grassroots into a tight green tapestry during the signature-gathering phase, the base is organized and ready to be tapped for an effective grassroots electoral campaign.

6. Losing is Not a Win

At the risk of stating the obvious, using the ballot box to improve environmental protection requires winning the election. The public education value of a losing initiative is minimal, and is generally negative. Planning to lose (or accepting defeat as a likely outcome) sets back the larger agenda to protect Nature.

The so-called “educational benefit” often cited by losing proponents--“even though it lost, a lot of voters were educated”--doesn't hold up to examination. To argue that losing expands public knowledge requires believing that the campaign onslaught waged by your opponents represents a fair and reasonable airing of the issues. In reality, losing means that the opponents set the terms of the public debate, a majority of the voters agreed with them, and decided to vote against the environment. A majority of voters were “educated” that no such environmental problem exists, and/or the environmentalists' proposed solution to the problem was too extreme, costly, or bureaucratic. This is not likely to make elected officials or policy-makers believe in a public mandate to expand environmental protection.

History has also consistently shown that the rationalization, “we scared the other side and therefore the legislature and/or governor now has to do something,” is similarly poor. Elected officials are generally reluctant to ignore the will of the voters, who, after all, have just spoken loud and clear by overwhelmingly defeating your measure.

A Different Approach: Initiatives as a Movement Priority

Making “Wayne's Rules” a mandatory checklist for successful initiatives implies a far different approach for the future. Conservationists will need to revise our strategy as we:

* develop the message and draft the ballot item and message (focusing not on what we want, but what the voters can be persuaded to support);

* build a much broader grassroots base;

* raise a much larger campaign budget, and spend it where it matters--on paid media and building an effective, volunteer grassroots campaign organization.

This argues for more up-front coalition-building; sponsors must be assured that allies consider the initiative a high priority. Before the ballot measure is filed or even drafted is the time to determine that potential partners are willing to commit substantial amounts of organizational resources to make the campaign an environmental movement priority. This is easier said than done. When anti-environment forces overreached in Arizona and Washington on the so-called “takings” measures, environmentalists--on the defensive--responded with force, determination, and coordination. These measures were handily defeated, after a massive effort. The environmental movement is always more cooperative on defense than on offense.

More problematic is determining when and with what issue(s) a ballot offensive makes sense. The environmental movement is quite broad, with many groups having staked out their niche on an issue. But few state, local, or regional groups have deep enough pockets to carry an initiative campaign alone. Packaging a measure to attract the diverse interests with overlapping agendas is difficult--not unlike herding cats! The challenge is to craft a measure (and a strategy to win) that gains adequate support from enough groups to pull together a winning campaign. “Adequate support” is not mere endorsement; enough groups must divert from their current efforts enough staff time, volunteer time, and money to provide for a winning effort.

And what about those issues that just can't raise a million or more dollars or organize the broad base of grassroots support to run a successful campaign? Proponents should either determine another way to meet their goals with the available resources, or look for another way to obtain the resources necessary to properly do an initiative petition. This would likely mean that environmentalists would file fewer, and possibly different, initiatives. But winning is sweet--and a victorious ballot initiative is worth the cost in time and money because it demonstrates to policy-makers the broad public support for protecting the environment. y

Sally J. Cross was formerly the political director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council. She has over 15 years of political experience working for and against referenda, candidates, and legislation (on the inside as legislative staff and the outside as a lobbyist).

Andy Kerr retired after 20 years with the Oregon Natural Resources Council in 1996, the last two as its executive director. He was instrumental in forest protection efforts in the administrative, judicial, and legislative arenas. He is now a consultant, writer, and gadfly living in the Wallowa Valley.

Cross and Kerr began collaborating when they both worked on the winning 1988 Oregon Rivers Initiative. That time, they were lucky that their opponents were more naive than they.

SIDEBAR: Oregon Initiatives in 1996: Did They Play by Wayne's Rules?

The 1996 election delivered a serious blow to the environmental agenda in Oregon when voters defeated two measures that would have increased Oregon's environmental protections. The Clean Streams Initiative was soundly defeated by a 36%-64% margin. The Bottle Bill Expansion measure was defeated 40%-60%. Both measures lost in 35 of 36 counties, winning only the most urban core of the state, Portland.

How closely did these two environmental measures, endorsed by much of Oregon's environmental community, follow “Wayne's Rules?” Predictably, they broke almost every one.

1. Do Your Research to Write a Winning Measure

Clean Streams: Did limited polling, ignored research that indicated significant weaknesses in response to opponent's arguments.

Bottle Bill Expansion: Did no polling, assuming the bottle bill's widespread acceptance would carry an expansion measure.

2. Keep it Simple

Clean Streams: No. Measure was lengthy, full of legalistic language.

Bottle Bill Expansion: Yes. Measure only changed a few words in existing bottle bill.

3. Run an All-Volunteer Signature Drive

Clean Streams: No. Sponsors spent $129,000 to help gather the approximately 90,000 signatures needed.

Bottle Bill Expansion: No. Backers spent more than $50,000 on signature gathering efforts.

4. Match Opponents' Paid Media (or, at least stay within a 3:1 spending ratio)

Clean Streams: No. Clean Streams opposition spent $668,000 to supporters' $102,000 (7-1).

Bottle Bill Expansion: No. Bottle Bill opponents spent $3.3 million, while supporters spent $286,000 (12-1).

5. Beat the Opponents at the Grassroots

Clean Streams and Bottle Bill Expansion: Some. Both used free media, speakers bureaus, and letters-to-the-editor. Targeted voter identification, contact, and get-out-the-vote efforts were limited or missing. Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), the Bottle Bill measure's leading sponsor, relied heavily on its fundraising canvass to contact voters; in the final weeks, it turned to blind literature dropping (going to every door, not just those homes with registered voters) and calling lists of all registered voters. The Clean Streams voter contact campaign was, if anything, more limited.

6. Losing is Not a Win

Clean Streams and Bottle Bill Expansion: No. Both sides touted the public education value of their campaigns, and promised action by the legislature on their issue. Predictably, as the Oregon legislature is in its final days of meeting, that has not come to pass. Governor Kitzhaber did get the legislature to pass a major salmon restoration package, but his office and legislative leadership made it clear that it was the threat of an Endangered Species Act listing of coho salmon and federal Clean Water Act requirements that drove these reforms. The issue of bottle bill expansion was never on the legislature's agenda.