How ballot initiatives will impact voter turnout in the 2018 midterms

Citizens vote on a basketball court at a recreation center serving as polling place during the U.S. general election in Greenville, North Carolina, U.S. November 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Jonathan Drake - HT1ECB81QZBBW
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Ballot initiatives are the unlikely force behind high voter turnout. Both political parties strategically use the ballot initiative to their advantage and to their opponent’s disadvantage come election day. The determination of the majority party for the next Congress is contingent on voter turnout in the midterms. Brookings Senior Fellow John Hudak breaks down how Republicans and Democrats have used ballot initiatives in their favor in the past, and how they are using them in the 2018 midterm elections.

What you need to know:

  • Political parties have used state-level ballot initiatives to motivate voter turnout in different ways.
  • For example, in 2004, the Republican Party put a constitutional amendment on gay marriage on the ballot in many states. This move motivated Republican voters to show up on Election Day to vote against the measures, which defeated the initiatives and helped President George W. Bush beat John Kerry.
  • In 2018, the trends in ballot initiatives show a focus on transportation and taxes.
  • In North Dakota, Democrats are using the legalization of cannabis to attract young voters and liberals to vote for incumbent Heidi Heitkamp. Republicans are playing off anti-immigrant rhetoric and introduced an initiative that would make it illegal for non-citizens to vote in North Dakota elections (which is already a violation of the law), which would draw Republicans to vote for Heitkamp’s challenger, Kevin Kramer.
  • Voter turnout has partisan effects. The more people who turn out to vote, the better chance Democrats have at winning elections. When fewer people turn out to vote, Republicans have a better chance at victory.
  • Republicans are making it increasingly difficult for young people and people of color to vote. In Georgia, voting records being purged and voting locations closing in majority black communities are efforts to decrease the Democratic vote.
  • In New York and Florida, there are efforts to increase the number of displaced Puerto Ricans that have come to the mainland to get registered to vote for the midterms. Though they cannot cast meaningful ballots in Puerto Rico, if they relocate to the mainland with an address, they have full rights to cast a ballot because they are American citizens.