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LESSONS ABOUT BALLOT INITIATIVE SUCCESS FROM THE CLAIM DEMOCRACY CONFERENCE 2003

I learned an incredible amount of information in just a few days at this conference. There were three main tracks to the workshops, Youth, Democracy and the Law, and State Reformers. For the most part I stayed on the State Reformers track, since it was most relevant to FIRV's goal of passing Instant Runoff Voting in Ferndale, Michigan. In these sesions - as well as in the plenary speeches and other sessions, I learned a great deal about the process of placing ballot initiatives on the ballot and getting them passed - especially initiatives dealing with election reform and campaign finance reform/publicly financed elections/clean elections. I've summarized the many lessons I learned at the conference below.



Initial Considerations

Things to take into account before going ahead with a ballot initiative.



The Importance of Good Objective Assessment

With ballot initiatives, it's really important to assess your chances of success objectively and to really think about whether to do it if you can't realistically pass the measure because losing on an initiative can really set you back. If you just try again soon after, you will be portrayed as not respecting the initial vote. Time and again people reiterated not to overestimate the support you have on an initiative just because you care about it. You need to objectively measure your support with polls or surveys or focus groups. Poll to see where you're at, then get to work educating, then try again and see where you're at. A 65-70% threshhold of support was mentioned by many, who said they remember when you could get an initiative passed if polls showed 50%. But now it's 65-70. They also said you need about 45% having very strong support. These people said unless they have these poll numbers, they don't feel it's worth even trying on an initiative.

As election day nears, it is important to know who your voters are and who you can expect to support you. They said if you can't afford polls of your own, you can sometimes tag along on someone else's who is already polling and see if they'll add a question or two for you in your area for less. Polling can serve many important purposes. Polls can be great to use as press releases since the media loves polls. Yet another use of poll data is to help raise money. If you frame it right, you can get grants to pay for your polling since you can be doing it as a service to the public, for example. Focus groups are better than telephone surveys which don't give you enough time to really get deep info. And in focus groups you can test out specific wording of your proposal on the ballot.

When I asked who can help us with issues of surveying, polling, and community education ideas they said Public Campaign, Common Cause, Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center, and the State PIRGs can help with these kinds of assessments. Now, in San Francisco, Caleb Kleppner said they did no polls and in Alaska he felt their polling data was useless whereas Kirk Weinert of PIRG felt that they just misinterpreted the data. But, the point remains that objective assessment of support is crucial.



Importance of Timing

Consider when to go ahead with an initiative. Should you do it during a Presidential election year? During a primary election? What other issues are on the ballot at the same time? What is the political climate, etc?



Sound, Strict Planning

Caleb Kleppner talked about the successful Instant Runoff Voting campaign in San Francisco. They wrote out a campaign plan (detailed in this word document) and a budget and stuck to it to the letter. The plan included everything they thought needed to happen to get it to pass. Someone also mentioned Lynne Serpe's campaign in New Zealand which helped bring Single Transferable Vote to many cities in that country. She had a real coordinated campaign that went all over NZ and is a model we could learn more from.



Defusing the Opposition

People default to voting no on ballot initiatives and Kristina Wilfore showed how the opposition has a huge advantage and if money is put up to get people to vote no on your measure it's even more effective than money you put up for it. In Alaska, the opposition to IRV put out a poster of a guy in Tiananmen Square in front of a tank and asked "Will you stand up for democracy by voting against IRV?" This is how far the opposition will go in some cases making ludicrous stretches and connections. Pure emotion. This shows the importance of talking to, gauging, and attempting to defuse and minimize potential opposition ahead of time.

Kirk Weinert of the State PIRGs has a ton of experience on all of this and is a great contact. He said the best way to diffuse opposition is to keep your proposal very narrow and focused on a specific problem. Caleb of CVD said they tried to show the business community in San Francisco who potentially might oppose them that IRV was in their best interest and if they couldn't then their plan was simply to confuse them so much that they weren't sure whether to oppose it. By doing this, he said they postponed the opposition's ultimate decision to oppose it until too late.

Another potential strategy can be timing. It can be helpful to wait until the opposition is busy fighting some other really big thing and then slip your issue in at that time when they are too busy to oppose it. A couple pretty radical things were mentioned that passed in just this type of situation.



Marathon, Not a Sprint

Over and over I heard how a) it is never as easy at it seems, even when it seems like you'll have a breeze getting things on the ballot and passing and b) even when it does pass you aren't done because you still have to defend the win and oversee implementation. In Colorado they got a campaign finance reform measure passed by 2/3 of the voters in 1996 and still the legislature found a way to change it. Now they've overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to try to ensure that the legislature can't touch it again. The message was repeated that unless you keep at it, the opposition will find some technicality or some way to not implement these changes, so this is really an ongoing job even after winning an initiative.

Steve Chessin of Californians for Electoral Reform said that he sees IRV and PR as a 40 year plan:
  • This decade = the decade of getting local use of IRV or use in small states
  • Next decade = decade of using the momentum of IRV to get it used in more states and PR used locally
  • 2020's = Getting PR statewide
  • 2030's = National IRV usage and finally an amendment to the federal law that limits use of PR.
So we're definitely in for what needs to be seen as a long road. I think it helps to just plan on it being this long of a road. I actually think this long-term view makes so much more sense and is so much more realistic and helps you make smart decisions strategy-wise, rather than just running in with passion burning but no good odds and burning out or even hurting your agenda by rushing things. On the other hand, it doesn't always take so long and sometimes things can happen surprisingly fast. So I think the lesson is plan for the long haul and enjoy it if you are pleasantly surprised.

As an example, clean elections in Maine was a 10 year process, a long term plan and strategy. Steve Chessin reminded us that only one of the women who signed the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at Seneca Falls in 1848 - the original document declaring the women's suffrage movement - lived to see the day she got to vote in 1920 (Charlotte Woodward). So again, the long-term view. We're doing this for our kids, our grandkids, etc. So perhaps M-FORE is a 40 year plan and F-IRV fits perfectly in as our first attempt at what Steve mentioned happening this decade.



Failure Can Hurt

Again it was brought up that if you lose an initiative, you can really set back not only your movement, but that in other places as well. On the other hand, in Colorado, I believe Jon Goldin-Dubois said they lost on a campaign finance reform initiative at first try, but then did pass it later. I may have misunderstood, however. Either way, the point is it can happen, but it's good to wait until the time is right and you are more certain of support.



Organization

The importance of efficient well-run meetings in keeping people willing to come back (we sure learned the downside of this in our early M-FORE meetings I think).



Voter and Public Education

As stated again by Rashad Robinson of CVD, people default to voting no on ballot initiatives so the burden is on you to make sure you have time to educate both so it passes and so when the opposition tries to dismantle your win, you have that broad support and understanding first in the community.

People have to know what IRV is before the election. Don't put it on the ballot hoping people read it and think it's a good idea. You have to make sure they know what it is before hand. After the conference we talked about how people need to hear about something 6 or 7 times before it's really pounded home, so the more times we can reach each person with this idea, the better obviously. But it's dangerous to just go ahead with an initiative unless you know people are familiar. The guy who was there that had worked on the failed campaign in Alaska for IRV said he started to just ask people "Do you know how IRV works?" Then he'd explain it when they said no (which was almost every time).



Mock Elections

Mock elections are key to get IRV out to the public. It is much easier to demonstrate Instant Runoff Voting than to explain it. Lynne, who did a lot of this stuff before, said that in fact she doesn't like using ice cream which is neutral. What she did is they'd have Star Wars characters, and 3 of them would be good guys and one would be a bad guy. Then when the good guys split the vote and the evil character won, the voters would see how when the vote is split the bad guy can win even though nobody likes him. I think this is a really good idea. She said voters came away feeling like plurality voting leads to evil forces breaking through :)

She also said when a local paper would run one of these, or when they'd just set up a booth on the street and do it, people found it fun and would often come up to her later and talk about it. But what is interesting is that the content, though seemingly trivial, was what they focused on most. They'd say "Oh yeah! I voted in that Star Wars election..." and then talk about Star Wars, etc. Despite being only an example to show the process, that content really stuck. So making it creative like that is helpful and we might think about just setting up shop in Ferndale on the street and having passersby just do these things for voter education.



Candidate Surveys

Dan Johnson-Weinberger mentioned the effectiveness of candidate surveys. As we approach next year's elections, we should perhaps consider putting out surveys asking all of the candidates their views on things like IRV.



Importance of Linking to Causes

Issues like IRV and PR are not sexy and procedural changes are difficult to get voters passionate about. Need to link these issues up with more real life issues when talking about them. Couch it in terms of how it is a benefit to the voter.



Importance of Identifying and Targeting a Specific Problem

Steven Hill mentioned that with an IRV drive it is crucial to identify the specific problems that the public perceives and that you are going to solve through the new system. In SF, they had the very obvious problem that people felt it was stupid to spend $5 million to hold a second runoff election that hardly anyone turned up to and they saw this as wasteful. So their campaign was centered around "Save Money, Increase Participation". Caleb said they have their campaign materials from that drive at ImproveTheRunoff.org so we can definitely use that site for some guidance. We don't really have this argument in Ferndale. We do, however, have the low voter turnout argument. Anyways, it's important to target a problem was the lesson.



Reaching Public Easier through Groups they Already Know and Trust

Reach citizens through the groups they already know. It is a more powerful message coming from someone they already know and are affiiliated with (churches, unions, etc). Not only your message is important but the messenger. The League of Women Voters seems to be a key group in all of this. In Colorado with campaign finance reform, Common Cause polled and found that LWV, not Common Cause, was the best messenger. They let LWV be the main face of their campaign, leading press conferences, etc. In Alaska, LWV there opposed IRV and that hurt them badly. LWV has a lot of power in these issues.

In another example New Majority Education Fund working for Fusion Voting are planning to purposely get their measure introduced by a legislator who is NOT known as a radical leftist, but someone more mainstream.



Enlist the Groups that Focus on Specific Related Problems

Groups that focus specifically on increasing voter turnout and voter education know how to overcome things like voter apathy and cynicism and tailor a message better than anyone since they do it every day. So to get people educated about IRV and to come out and vote for it, ask these groups that work all the time to Get Out the Vote, for instance.



Voter Education can be a Long, Gradual Process

You may have to start with the basics. In keeping with the idea of it being a long-term process, CVD said they realized a while back that they had skipped ahead in addressing the problem and talking about IRV and PR because people didn't yet even realize the problem. They had to step back and put out some education simply about the problem itself, just bringing attention to it on its own without even getting into IRV and PR yet. In another example, the New Majority Education Fund is trying for Fusion Voting and plans to put it on the ballot in '06 to give themselves time to do widespread education and polling and focus groups and neutralizing opposition and raising money and message development that meets all the 5 C's of a message.



5 C's of Message Development

Brad Bannon, the pollster, talked about the importance of polls, surveys, and focus groups in determining not only how much support you have, but which angle of your message will be more effective. He stressed that what seems to the sponsor to be most important may not be at all what the voters perceive as the reason to vote for a measure. We need to find out what speaks to them, not what speaks to us. He gave 5 C's that should be applied to any successful campaign message:

  • Compelling - has to have strong emotional content as voters choose on emotion, not logic.

  • Credible - Don't overstate how much your measure will improve things. If you do, they won't buy it.

  • Consistent - Even if you have a coalition of groups involved, you need to all be on one message, and that message needs to be the one that the surveys, etc. have shown works, not the one any particular group likes best itself. The message should, however, be broad enough to tailor to special groups. Bannon and Wilfore both stressed a pragmatic approach, which I know progressives don't like a lot of times, but this is the fact if you want to get things passed. Bannon said he almost wanted to scream because he sees this problem so often that progressives just don't seem to want to realize that an effective message has to reach the voter emotionally in their language and instead try to just argue logically. This is not the language voters speak in most places. Always remember that your motivation to pass something may not be the motivation that voters have to pass it. Bannon talked about a circle that is what your intent is with the measure and a circle that is what the voters care about related to the issue. He said find the points where they intersect and there is your message.

  • Clear - Make sure you're speaking the voters' language. Don't use words like "progressive" and "regressive" which they don't even understand. Just say "fair" or "unfair" and use plain clear language.

  • Concise - Bannon said if you can't tell your voters why to pass your measure in 30 seconds or less you're in trouble. They are too busy to listen to a drawn out lecture.
I have a copy of the Colorado pamphlet for campaign finance reform that Jonathon Goldin-Dubois says meets all of the C's and helped it pass.

Framing - If you are able to frame the issue as one of better vs. worse democracy and keep your opponents from making it one of, say, spending money vs. not spending, you are in better shape. Try to shape the terms of the debate.



Press Coverage Easier on Weekend

If you do an event and want press coverage, do it on a weekend when they are often just looking for things to cover since news is slower on those days.



Funding

As far as funding, for its San Francisco IRV drive, CVD got all the money ($100,000) from private individual donors. In Colorado, groups got some foundation support for education on campaign finance reform with LWV, Common Cause and PIRG each using some of that for diff parts of the education.



Ballot Issues



Getting it On the Ballot

Caleb said you are twice as likely to pass the measure if a legislature puts it on the ballot vs. an individual or citizen group. So it's better to try to get the elected officials to put it on because then, even if they don't, you can go to the public saying "our officials aren't willing to help us improve things!" and play off of their outrage in response. He also said that in SF it was key leader endorsements that made a big difference. Nonetheless, in Colorado it was purely a citizen issue with campaign finance reform and Jonathon Goldin-Dubois said both parties opposed it and not one newspaper supported them but it still passed. So it's hard to take a one-size-fits-all rule out of this, just a lot to think about.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger's main points were to try to tap into existing power as much as possible since it is SO much easier if you can get someone with some power to introduce your measure. He also mentioned that we need to have more of a sense of entitlement that the city council is OUR city council just the way the conservatives just assume that of course this is our city and our council and we should help run things around here. Rashad added that it isn't impossible to get initiatives passed if put on by the citizens themselves.



Ballot Language is Key

Ballot language is extremely important. A lot of times these people poll on the exact ballot wording to see what kind of response they would get to that exact initiative. As for the wording of the question on the ballot, Caleb gave a great example of how they worded the IRV proposal in San Francisco. They actually had to very closely watch over the process, as an attorney working on it tried to add more words into it that would have hurt their chances. They managed to get it on the ballot as they wanted it and it won. On the ballot in SF it was worded as basically that the city shall adopt IRV to ensure that winners are elected with a majority without a separate runoff. He said that had it been worded as "shall eliminate the last place candidate and transfer his second-place votes blah blah" they would have lost. By keeping it simple, it was understandable to the voter.



Final Comments

We really are on the cutting edge in our attempts to advance Instant Runoff Voting and election reform. According to Caleb, in recent years there have been 6 initiatives to enable local use of IRV and 5 passed. There have been 2 to implement IRV and one passed (SF), and of the two in Cincinnatti to bring back PR, both failed. So there hasn't been a lot of activity on this that got to the level of an actual vote.

We need to stay in touch with others who are working on this for advice and support. Rob Richie said talk to him because they have a special invite list for people working on this stuff that we can get on. We need to look for others in Ferndale on the web who are already into the democracy movement that we don't know about yet to contact? This is how Mike Fabius started when he did this on a campus.

We should go through this list and make a plan of how to proceed next. At this point, it's all about education. Polling is education. Surveys are education. Everything we do increases education. Ferndale is a small town and we have the means to do the education. A lot of what was said gives us pause to not rush ahead, but I don't think that it means we can't go ahead. It just means we should start with a vigorous attempt to assess where we're at objectively and start educating. With the mayor and council members like Craig Covey already on board, we have a great headstart. So I think we should move ahead, but just do it more consciously and realizing that we can take time if necessary to do it right. And if our education and talking to people shows the support we need, then we can move ahead now.

We also want a way to channel people into the long-term movement. It occurred to me that when people see F-IRV's site who are from outside, we really need an email list or maybe even another website for M-FORE to channel those who might want to do similar things elsewhere but aren't interested in F-IRV itself. Right now those people are probably just leaving, so we need a place to channel them to, even just an email list.

These core reform issues are a long road and take commitment, but they are so crucial that I think it's well worth it. They affect everything else we do from peace activism to social justice to environmentalism.

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