Ballot Measures: Go or No-Go Decisions

by Joe Fuld (He/Him)

Ballot Measures

Ballot Measures: Deciding Whether or Not to Go on the Ballot 

In today’s political climate of partisanship and mistrust, constituents are turning to the ballot measure process to bypass traditional government controls to pass legislation. 

But before you start putting something on the ballot, take the time to run the traps and see if you’re ready to qualify a ballot measure. Simply put, ballot measures take a lot of work. In addition to spending your dollars on raising awareness for your issue and persuading your target audience, you need to set aside the time to invest in crafting ballot measure language that resonates with your audience and a plan to secure enough votes to win.

The issues on the ballot are wide ranging and are passed at different levels (state, county, and municipal (depending on state and local laws). 

Take some of the most notable statewide ballot measures of recent years:

•    Legalization of medical or recreational marijuana
•    Minimum wage increases
•    Abortion access and funding
•    Restrictions or limitations on taxes
•    Medicaid expansion

*If you’re interested in learning more about current ballot measures in your state, or thinking about getting a measure on the ballot,  check out the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center’s Ballot Measure cheat sheet.

The sheer amount of ballot measures across our country is growing, and so is attention to ballot measures.  Trust us when we say that it’s imperative to do the initial prep work to determine whether your ballot measure has the power to stand out in a crowd from other issues, and has the potential to win.

If you are deciding whether your issue should be a measure on the ballot, ask yourself these questions:

Do you understand the process? The process of getting a measure on the ballot varies by area and requires specific knowledge of the local ballot process. Not every issue can go on the ballot and some states and localities allow certain measure and others do not. Some allow for local approval without signature collection, some need signature collection. Oh yes, it is complicated. 

Do I understand the calendar? Navigating the calendar to get a ballot measure approved is an art form.  Make sure you know when you need signatures turned in by or language approved by a legislative body. Having political and legal resources to navigate this and know the rules is important. 

How well does my ballot language test? The language used for your ballot measure can make the difference between winning and losing a campaign. Be meticulous about wording. For example, does your ballot language say “tax” six times? If so, you’re in trouble. It’s important to keep in mind voters often skim their ballots. Thus, for those skimming the ballot, when they see “tax” over and over it might raise red flags that the ballot measure supports tax raises. Be deliberate about what words you’re using on your ballot measure.

Will the language I am testing be the language used on the actual ballot? Many folks make the mistake of testing different language that never shows up on the actual ballot. This mistake can be fatal. Even slight variations in ballot language can make a huge difference. When possible, test the actual ballot language as it will appear on the ballot. It’s okay to test different language related to your issue but be sure that you’re polling informs and influences the final ballot measure language you end up using.

Do I have control over the ballot language? Even if you've thoroughly tested your ballot language, it could still be changed before it's on the ballot. Be sure you know how the approval process works and who has the power to write and adjust the final language.

What is my “hard support” number? Many campaigns make the mistake of going on the ballot by looking at the total support number, which is a big mistake. The number of people who show “hard support” (strong, definite supporters) is very different than the number of people who show “soft support” (lean towards supporting). Your hard support total should be at least 55%. If you can demonstrate that you have a substantial number of “hard supporters” then put your ballot measure or referendum on the ballot.

What is my “soft support” number? The number of people who show “soft support” in many ballot measures is a reach goal. In theory, throughout  your ballot measure campaign, you would be able to persuade some of these voters to become hard “supporters.” However, the plan should not rely on soft supporters to win. Make sure you have the hard support numbers you need.

The role of your non-profit organization in a ballot measure. Many non-profits are a part of the inception of ballot measures. Often a ballot measure is referred by a legislative body to the ballot. It can also be put on the ballot by citizens after it could not be passed legislatively, or endorsed by an organization because it is a part of its overall mission. When engaging with ballot measures nonprofits need to have a clear vision and plan for what their role will be before and after a measure gets on the ballot. The non-profit’s role could be advocating for the measure, turning out a specific constituency, or doing public education around the measure. Check with an attorney and understand your organization's bylaws around what you can and cannot do. Also, make sure you have clear organizational buy-in and a clear delineation of the role of organizational staff and campaign staff role before you get started.

What is the history of the community where I am going on the ballot?  In some places, it is difficult to pass certain measures, such as tax increases. Even measures that are not tax increases may be characterized as tax increases.  If you are swimming upstream, you need favorable ballot language, good starting numbers, more money than you may think, and a solid coalition to give you a fighting chance.  
Is the political support there for my ballot measure issue? Politicians can be fickle, and so can voters. Just because a politician lets a ballot measure go to the ballot does not mean they will support it.  Even if they support a ballot measure, you will still have a lot of work to keep them informed and positively leaning toward the campaign. 

Is there real community support? Just because someone signs a petition at a shopping mall does not mean they will support the measure on Election Day. Build relationships with people who have demonstrated support for your ballot measure throughout the election cycle. Perhaps serve them digital ads or ask them to pledge to vote via a piece of acquisition by mail. 

Do you have a real coalition? Money is essential, but you also need real support for your measure. An active coalition will make all the difference. Start by thinking about who your base support groups could be but expand. Think about the groups and individuals you want in your coalition that represent or speak to, perhaps, a new subset of your target audience. Create a strategy to get that support.

Do we have folks who will work on a campaign? Just because you have a coalition does not mean you have active individuals ready to run a campaign- raising money, holding house parties, or knocking on doors. As you start to think of going on the ballot, ensure you have a team to run the campaign. 

Is there organized opposition? Have a sense of how active the campaign against your issue will be. Organized opposition will make it harder to win.  If you face opposition, your costs will increase exponentially. In addition to spreading your messaging, you’ll have to invest in combating the opposition’s messaging. 

Do I have the money for a prolonged campaign? With some campaigns, you may be fortunate to not have organized opposition.  Even without organized opposition, you will still need money for a substantial campaign. In the initial planning of your campaign, it’s important to consider this. Having like-minded individuals commit money and time from the start ensures you have the resources to win.

Do I need signature gathering? If so, add this as a line item in your budget or ensure your team is ready to collect signatures.  In many places, especially for statewide and large county measures, signature-gathering requirements necessitate a paid or hybrid effort. Signature gathering and validation can cost upwards of $10 a signature. Remember that even before running the actual ballot measure campaign, you might have to invest money and a lot of time in solely garnering support. 

Do I need legislative approval? If you seek legislative approval to get your measure on the ballot, it is a complicated process that can take years and have many pitfalls. 

Know when to go on the ballot and when to hold off. It might be evident to you that the campaign isn’t winnable. Perhaps your polling reveals that you don’t have a shot or lack the hard support numbers you need to win. When in doubt, it’s always better to regroup than run a ballot measure or referendum campaign guaranteed to lose.

Bottom Line: Do your homework before you put a ballot measure on the ballot.  To consider going on the ballot, there is ample work needed, including understanding the calendar, polling, organization, coalition-building, political assessment, fundraising assessment, and general viability.

Have questions about launching a ballot measure? Drop us a note.

Need more resources on ballot measures? Check out our post on qualifying a ballot measure and our blog for political campaign tips.