Conservative Ballot Initiatives Are in the Spotlight

The conservative agenda will serve as a barometer on social policy.

Same-sex couple Paul Festa (R) and James Harker hold their marriage license after they were married at San Francisco City Hall. Same-sex couples throughout California are rushing to get married as counties begin issuing marriage license after a State Supreme Court ruling to allow same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage bans are being debated.

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While Democrats used ballot initiatives to their benefit in 2006, boosting the minimum wage in six states and, in turn, taking control of Congress, it is the conservative wish list that is making headlines this election. But the GOP platform probably won't influence the debate like it did in 2004 when antigay marriage initiatives riled up the Republican base. "None of these measures are going to vastly increase turnout, and that's kind of hard for folks to grasp," says Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. The agenda, instead, will serve as a barometer on social policy issues and could create a test case to challenge one of the court's most controversial decisions, Roe v. Wade. There isn't one big "wedge" issue, but voters in a handful of states will consider bans on gay marriage, abortion, and affirmative action.

Gay marriage. For gay rights groups, 2006 was a victory. Even though antigay marriage measures passed in seven states, bringing the national total of constitutional amendments banning gay marriage to 26, one failed and the ones that passed were approved by slimmer margins. Now, same-sex marriage bans are on the ballot in California, Florida, and Arizona—and two might fail. The first is in California, where Proposition 8 would reverse the state Supreme Court's ruling that effectively legalized gay marriage. Prominent Californians like director Steven Spielberg have fought the amendment.

Abortion. Antiabortion rights groups tried to get abortion restrictions placed on the ballot in seven states, but only three made it. Of those, two are significant. First is Colorado's Amendment 48, which doesn't mention abortion but instead changes the definition of "person" in the state Constitution to "any human being from the moment of fertilization." While it's primarily viewed as an antiabortion measure, it could be interpreted more broadly, causing much of the Colorado's legal and medical community to oppose it. In South Dakota, a measure would ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or a serious threat to the mother's health. Experts say this could create a test case that would allow the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade.

Affirmative action. Antiaffirmative action initiatives have been successful in the past, often pitting political leaders against the public. Conservative activist Ward Connerly has spearheaded measures in Colorado and Nebraska that would outlaw preferential treatment. These initiatives could bring up one subject that the candidates do not want to discuss—race.

There are signs that progressive issues are gaining traction, too.In Montana, an abortion ballot initiative failed to pick up steam, but a children's healthcare measure will appear on the November ballot. There are several energy acts—including one being financed by prominent oilman T. Boone Pickens. But in the end, it's going to be the presidential candidates who attract voters, not a single issue.