Environmental Issues, Progressive Activism, and Voter Turnout

With the historic 2008 Presidential elections well behind us it's time to turn to a discussion of how progressives will be mobilized in 2010.  As we've seen from recent Des Moines Register polling, being “progressive” isn't necessarily a Democratic or Republican issue.  It's a question of “getting things done”. 

Voters of all political stripes see major problems that need addressing and politicians of both political parties not fully meeting those needs.  As I mentioned in a recent diary, I'm the campaign manager for Iowa's Water and Land Legacy.  I believe that this particular ballot issue has the potential to be a rallying point for conservation voters of all political stripes this campaign season.  I will be making a series of posts in the coming weeks that will highlight organizations working on conservation issues throughout Iowa, and some national organizations as well.  If there are groups you are members of or are interested in learning more about please comment here or backchannel me at marklanggin [at] gmail.com.

In general, I'll use the 2010 general election and the constitutional amendment on the ballot as the main point of reference (bias duly noted in my profile…).  As you may know, it's VERY difficult to amend Iowa's constitution.  Personally, I think that's a positive thing.  It's important that the state constitutiona serve as a relatively stable base for how policy is developed by the legislature, but at times Iowans have found issues of such importance that they rise to the level of supporting a constitutional amendment. 

Amendments in Iowa must pass two General Assembly sessions, with an election in between, before they can be placed on the ballot.  Typically these amendments are placed on the general election ballot, but they can be scheduled as special elections as well.

There haven't been very many amendments to Iowa's constitution compared to many other states and this is undoubtedly connected to the long process required for placing a question on the ballot…but I am getting away from the point of this post.  Will a ballot measure related to conservation increase voter turnout?

Some recent research on direct democracy and voter mobilization tends to support the hypothesis:

Previous research has found that the campaigns of candidates running for office provide information to voters and can increase turnout. Scholarly research has also found that states with initiatives and referendums appearing on the ballot have higher voter turnout, especially in midterm elections. However, actual initiative campaigns are rarely measured. Drawing on national survey data and state contextual factors, we use a multilevel modeling strategy to test whether Americans are more likely to vote in recent midterm and presidential elections when there is increased spending in initiative and candidate campaigns, as well as more frequent use of direct democracy. The research includes a number of methodological advancements from earlier work on turnout and direct democracy (including a control for endogeneity) by restricting the analysis to initiative states only. The analysis suggests initiative campaigns not only increase individual level turnout but also especially benefit the lower educated.

In a non-presidential year voter turnout tends to be on the low side.  There is less media interest, voters aren't as exposed to the personalities involved, and the electorate tends to be more “partisan” in character.  This is why I think the effort behind Iowa's Water and Land Legacy amendment and conservation issues in general have the potential to increase voter turnout this cycle.  The issue tends to be “above the fray” and not driven by partisan fighting. 

Also, conservation issues in general are heavily driven by established organizations such as the Izaak Walton League, Pheasants Forever, and other sporting groups.  These organizations have a very “middle of the road” political character that isn't overly partisan.  This has the potential to drive turnout at the margins, and particularly for independents who are motivated by conservation issues…Independents who might not normally turnout for an off year non-presidential election.

What do you think? 


About the Author(s)

Mark Langgin

  • interesting post

    I suspect a lot depends on how visible the referendum/constitutional amendment campaign is. If it’s one with a high-profile media element (news media coverage as well as paid advertising), turnout is more likely to increase than, say, the last constitutional amendment to pass in Iowa (which removed the word “idiot” from our constitution). But that is just a guess.

  • I agree

    The amendment you are referencing was completely non-controversial.  I’m proud that Iowans were able to make that change, but it wasn’t a barnburner for media coverage by any means!

    The media coverage for referendum issues in other states has been pretty deep.  Traditional media outlets tend to “burn out” on candidate coverage and partisan politics is typically relegated to the main section of the newspaper.  The thing about ballot issues is they necessarily cross over party lines and they touch topic areas that are very conducive to alternative coverage – outdoor magazine features, sports sections, business sections, etc…So, the coverage can be much deeper and much less partisan.