Sometimes a ballot issue isn’t really about the issue |

Sometimes a ballot issue isn’t really about the issue

FILE - This combination of file photos shows North Dakota Senate candidates in the November 2018 election from left, incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and her Republican challenger Kevin Cramer. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy, File)
Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The outcome of one of the nation’s most critical Senate races could come down to an unrelated question: how North Dakota residents feel about blocking noncitizens from voting — even though such voting is already illegal.

Conservatives have placed the issue on the November ballot and are promoting it heavily, hoping to bring out a flood of conservative voters who, at the same time, would boost Republican Kevin Cramerto victory in his close Senate race with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp .

The hardball tactic is also on display this cycle in California, where Republicans hope a proposal to repeal a gasoline tax increase attracts the kind of voter who will help them hang on to some House seats. In other states, marijuana legalization measures could gin up turnout for Democratic candidates even if the measures themselves fizzle.

“Initiatives are a good thing overall,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for the government watchdog group Common Cause. “But nefarious tactics are sometimes used by both parties to try and hijack the process … to get a certain outcome in certain elections.”

The use of citizen initiatives, allowed in two dozen states, has been rising along with dissatisfaction with gridlocked government. Ballotpedia, an organization that analyzes electoral data, counted 75 such measures in 2016, the most in nearly 40 years. This year Ballotpedia counted 69.

Scherb said partisan use of the measures is growing. It’s a tactic that can be especially potent in midterm elections, where turnout is smaller — typically 40 percent, compared with 60 percent in a general election nationally.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin opted to schedule a medical marijuana measure for the primary ballot in June — a move widely seen as making sure it didn’t wind up on the general election ballot in November. The measure triggered a spike in progressive turnout.

In California, Republicans say their campaign to repeal a recent gasoline tax increase didn’t start out that way, but then they saw an opportunity.

“The gas tax repeal was not done for pure political motive from day one,” Jennifer Jacobs, a Republican strategist from San Diego, said. “But subsequently, the (GOP) realized very quickly it motivated voters, and as a way to try and get independent and working-class voters to vote Republican.”

Democrats, too, see opportunities to get their voters to the polls with left-leaning measures . In Michigan, where voters will consider legalizing marijuana, Democrats endorsed the measure at their summer convention. Randy Richardville, a former state Senate majority leader leading an opposition group, said there was “no question” Democrats see marijuana as a liberal turnout booster.

Brandon Dillon, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, conceded as much.

“When politics and policy come together it’s a beautiful thing, and we are hoping this is one of those occasions,” he said.

Marijuana is on the ballot in North Dakota this year, too, and so is a measure that would make sweeping government ethics changes that Democrats have pursued for years. The chief sponsors of both measures say they stem from a desire to change law, not shape the electorate.

But Gary Emineth, a former state GOP chairman, isn’t buying it.

“These are a big play by the left,” Emineth said. “It’s going to have some impact.”

It was Emineth who brought forward the measure on noncitizen voting, saying frankly that he hoped it would “neutralize” the other two questions that he sees as attempts “to drive the liberal vote … and help Heidi.”

He’s sinking $43,000 of his own money into the measure. North Dakota’s constitution already defines a voter as a U.S. citizen, but Emineth argues the wording should specifically prohibit voting by noncitizens.

Ladd Erickson, a prosecutor in western North Dakota’s McLean County who says he has no party affiliation, called the measure “pointless” and said it “unnecessarily plays politics” with the constitution.

Clyde Ereth, 64, a Republican who said he is backing the Democrat Heitkamp, called the noncitizen voting initiative “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that was clearly designed to woo Cramer supporters.

“It doesn’t even matter because you already can’t vote unless you are a citizen,” he said. “So, if we say it twice, does that make it any better?”

But the gaming of the ballot doesn’t always work.

In 2012, Republican legislators in Minnesota put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would have banned same-sex marriage. John Kriesel, a GOP House member at the time, said some lawmakers pushed the measure from sincere conviction, but there also was also a clear desire to activate the conservative base for Republican candidates.

Instead, the measure sparked a massive opposition movement. Democrats took control of both the House and Senate.

“That was the worst political decision that could have been made,” said Kriesel, now a motivational speaker and author. “That was the biggest butt-kicking I’ve seen since I’ve been involved in politics for sure.”