Election Day’s Referendum Revolution

Jake Olzen Dec 4, 2012

On December 6, two historic new laws in Washington State take effect. A majority of voters chose last month to legalize marijuana and pass measures for marriage equality, thanks to community organizing efforts and social change movements concretely focused on policy issues. Referendum 74, which would allow same-sex couples to marry, passed with 53-percent approval. Meanwhile, Initiative 502 passed with 55 percent of voters assenting to legalize the production, processing and selling of marijuana in the state. Several other states passed similar measures at the same time, but Washington was the only one to claim both.

While most people had their eyes fixed on the presidential race on Election Day, these victories were significant because they represented a culminating point in much longer struggles for change. They took place in large part because of traditional on-the-ground organizing together with institutional support from national organizations.

Making the impossible possible

The popular vote for marriage equality in Washington — as well as in Maine and Maryland — vindicated a gay-rights campaign that put boots on the ground and sent out savvy messaging across the airwaves. Since 2005, most of the efforts for marriage equality focused on a three-part strategy for winning support: first get the state legislature to pass a bill, then ensure that the governor signs it and finally win public support by referendum. First, the effort relied on gradual, grassroots activism to put pressure for change on public officials. Then, during the lead-up to the referendum, professional campaign organizers spread the vote-yes messaging.

Josh Friedes is marriage equality director at Equal Rights Washington, and he was a board member of the Washington United for Marriage (WUM) coalition, which organized the effort. “I believe that grassroots activism is the art of making the impossible possible, and politics is the art of the possible,” Friedes told me. “I don’t believe that it would have been possible to achieve marriage equality in Washington state prior to 2012 when you look at the electorate in particular.”

While WUM deserves much credit for waging a strategic campaign, it relied on the efforts of ordinary people to shift the conversation around marriage equality through what Friedes calls “journey stories.”

“In 2005, conversations about marriage equality were in very academic terms,” Friedes said. “By 2012, the discourse moved to conversations about meeting the needs of people we knew and loved. It moved to people talking about their friends, children, parents, co-workers who are LGBT and the issues they faced.”

The shift in tone and focus on LGBT issues highlighted an important lesson: How an issue is talked about matters greatly. Urging people to speak in very personal terms and share their own stories and the stories of the people they love became one of the narrative tools that marriage equality activists and organizations began to employ as tools for crafting a consistent and genuine message.

“We realized that what we needed to do is empower supporters to talk to friends and family and see themselves as social change agents who know they have a role to play,” Friedes explained, “even if it’s as simple as a Facebook post.” By identifying appropriate storytellers in media messaging and framing marriage equality as a win-win for the state’s voters, WUM focused on common ground and shared values. They helped people make the campaign a part of ordinary life.

“You didn’t have to devote your life to the cause, but simply integrate the freedom-to-marry message into people’s lives — bumper stickers, social media, mentioning it at social engagements. The work was relatively easy.”

The marriage equality campaign received critical support from national organizations like Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Freedom to Marry. HRC, for example, was a founding member of WUM and provided $1.3 million for the ballot campaign, as well as some key staff in leadership and organizing positions. HRC was also instrumental in garnering broad support for the coalition, which includes more than 500 congregations, organizations and businesses including Nike, REI, T-Mobile, Expedia, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and SEIU. WUM spent over $11 million in its campaign, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission records.

In the end, the confluence of highly visible and contested social issues like marijuana and marriage — combined with the presidential and gubernatorial elections — led to relatively high voter turnout, which WUM was counting on to win.

Moms, cops and preachers for pot

Despite its recent victory in Washington, the movement for drug reform remains in its early stages in certain respects. While state and local authorities have some control over drug policy — particularly on how recreational drug users are punished — the federal “war on drugs” is still a major impediment to serious drug reform. But state-led initiatives are forcing the issue with their own decriminalization and legalization efforts.

The November ballot initiative was made possible by a citizens’ petition to Washington’s secretary of state that sent I-502 to the state legislature. New Approach Washington, which was the primary coalition supporting I-502, collected more than 341,000 signatures — 100,000 more than is required by law to send it to the legislature. Because Washington legislators did not take action on I-502 within 60 days, the initiative was automatically put on the November ballot.

New Approach Washington spent $5.9 million on the campaign, while its various opponents barely mustered $10,000 in total against the initiative. Rather than the narrative-based strategy that marriage-equality organizers used, the campaign for marijuana legalization emphasized rational public policy arguments. Headed by ACLU Washington’s drug policy director, Alison Holcomb, New Approach Washington targeted specific key demographic groups. Television ads — like the so-called “Moms for Pot” spot — as well as direct mailing, endorsements and position papers comprised the bulk of the propaganda in favor of I-502. National drug reform organizations like theNational Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) helped portray marijuana reform advocates as serious, policy-oriented persons. High-profile endorsers, like former Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper and travel writer Rick Steves helped promote the message that I-502 would mean a more “sane and sensible policy” on marijuana. Even evangelist Pat Robertson now supports the cause.

This strategy also assumed Washington’s voters, once informed about the issue, would adopt legalization as the most reasonable choice. Some analysts estimatethat, in the United States, one of every eight people incarcerated in state or federal prisons is there for marijuana; nationwide, U.S. taxpayers spend over $8 billion prosecuting marijuana crimes. Mexico’s violent drug cartels earn 60 percent of their income, or $8.6 billion, from illicit U.S.-marijuana sales. Meanwhile, proponents of I-502 say that nearly $200 million in tax revenue stands to be raised through legalization.

Not all legalization advocates, however, favored I-502. Sensible Washington, for example, is an all-volunteer drug-reform organization that opposed the initiative because I-502 would not actually remove cannabis from the controlled-substance classification in state law and, controversially, would set legal limits for levels of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — in users’ bloodstreams. But Sensible Washington lacked the funds, capacity and messaging to significantly alter the frame of the public discourse.

In an email, Troy Barber from the Sensible Washington Steering Committee elaborated on the role finances played in getting an initiative on the ballot. In 2010, with a budget of $40,000, Sensible Washington obtained two-thirds of the signatures necessary to put marijuana reform on the ballot. In 2011, with only $32,000, the group obtained half the signatures needed. Compare that with the almost $1 million New Approach Washington spent on obtaining signatures for this election, and it becomes clear that money plays an important role in ballot initiatives.

“In order for an all-volunteer effort to succeed,” Barber said, “more people are required to volunteer and contribute — otherwise a large budget is needed to pay for gatherers. Incentives come down to either money, or enough people believing in a unified message to get the job done.”

There is long road ahead for drug reform advocates in Washington and nationwide, but the victory in Washington — along with another in Colorado — suggest that people’s attitudes toward drug and incarceration policy are shifting. Still, how federal drug laws and the Department of Justice will respond to such state initiatives to decriminalize, legalize and regulate illicit substances remains to be seen.

Relay races, not marathons

For better or for worse, the reality is that deep pockets and broad coalitions were essential ingredients for Washington’s successful state-level ballot initiatives. But even those relied on years of organizing, collecting signatures and efforts to shift dominant narratives. So while New Approach Washington is likely to disband after I-502′s passage and WUM’s work is done, grassroots groups like Sensible Washington will remain in the struggle, continuing the fight for serious drug reform until the trajectory of social change culminates in coalition-based work once again.

Josh Friedes has his own preferred metaphor for ongoing policy efforts like this. “They need to be looked at as relay races — not a marathon — and that you have different people doing the running,” he said. “In last leg of the race, it is very much run by professionals who are very strategic. They run the right TV ads and messages and send the right direct mail. The people who are very good at long-term social change may not be the same people who are very good at closing the deal.”

Thanks to campaigns like these, Democratic Party leaders are beginning to realize that their base expects action on issues like drug reform and marriage equality. President Obama publicly endorsed Referendum 74, as did most of Washington’s Democratic candidates who posted significant victories in the state. This might raise a chicken-and-the-egg question: Did I-502 pass because the Democratic Party endorsed it, or did the Democrats win because Washington voters who said yes to R-74 and I-502 think that those candidates would make better allies for the issues that mattered to them?

The intersection between electoral politics, ballot initiatives and social change is hardly straightforward. But one thing is clear — movement-based campaigns that take advantage of big election cycles with clear messaging and broad coalitions can be a vehicle for landmark policy reform.

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