Grassroots ballot initiatives do better at the polls than big-money initiatives

Press release: Initiative Process: Money Doesn’t Buy Success at Ballot Box

Study: Interest Group Influence in the California Initiative Process

Book: The Populist Paradox: Interest Group Influence and the Promise of Direct Legislation

A news article in a similar vein:

CU Journalism School Dean Paul Voakes’ article debunks myths about initiatives:

August 13, 2000, The Oregonian


So you think you’ve heard it all about Oregon’s initiative system? Try this true-false quiz:

  • Initiatives have been passing like crazy the last few years.
  • Spending on initiatives has skyrocketed.
  • Initiatives are an easy way for wealthy individuals to make their pet ideas law.
  • Conservatives are more successful with initiatives than liberals.

All true?

In fact, only one claim — that spending has skyrocketed — holds up.

The test is for fun. But at a time when Oregon seems to have gone initiative wild, it shows that there is much to learn — and relearn — about the century-old system of direct democracy that so dominates our politics.

Voters will consider 18 citizen initiatives on the Nov. 7 ballot, the most since 1914, and no state has used the initiative more frequently in the last quarter-century.

The surge in popularity of the initiatives has fostered a backlash, mainly from politicians and some citizens who say it short-circuits the more deliberative process of making laws in the Legislature.

A tempest of claims and assumptions accompanies the criticism, but are many of them valid?

To find out, The Oregonian decided to look more closely at the 99 initiatives that have been on the ballot since 1976, when post-Watergate reforms ushered in laws that made campaign contributors public.

We built a database, logging such things as campaign spending, the level of big-donor support, whether each measure had conservative or liberal backing, and how many had passed.

And to help spot trends, we divided the quarter-century into periods: post-Watergate (1976-1982), the years after courts allowed paid signature gathering (1984-1990), and the years since passage of the landmark property tax limit Measure 5 in 1990.

What did we find? Here are eight often-heard observations about the initiative system — and how they hold up under historical scrutiny.

1 “Initiatives are passing like crazy the last several years.”

Not true. They actually enjoyed a greater success rate in the ’80s than in the ’90s.

In the post-Watergate period, 28 percent of the initiatives on the ballot passed. That shot up to 45 percent in the middle period but declined to 40 percent in the past four election cycles.

Of course, more initiatives are hitting the ballot than ever, so more are becoming law or part of the state constitution than ever before.

The average number of initiatives per election increased from 4.5 in the early period to 12 in the ’90s. And the pace seems to be quickening. Since 1994, we’ve averaged 14 initiatives per November election, not counting this year’s crop.

Donald Stabrowski, a political scientist at the University of Portland, sees the increase as part of a long cycle that dates back almost 100 years, when Oregon became one of the first states to adopt the initiative system.

“Usually when there’s dissatisfaction with elected officials you get this frequency,” Stabrowski says. “We go through these ups and downs, and we’re probably at a peak right now. At some point soon, it will all start seeming too expensive, and the results won’t be as satisfying as people want them to be.”

2 “Spending on initiative campaigns has skyrocketed. “

True. “Skyrocket” might be a bit strong, but there’s no doubt that campaign spending is up — way up.

Adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars, the average spent per initiative nearly doubled from $862,000 in the late ’70s to $1.7 million in the ’90s.

All political spending is up, of course. But the increase for Oregon initiatives is more dramatic. Spending nationally on congressional campaigns rose about 60 percent during the same period, as did spending on Oregon’s statewide and legislative races.

Though average spending per initiative fell slightly in 1998, to $1.6 million, no one is predicting a downward trend.

Sean Smith, a political consultant who worked on this year’s failed initiative to repeal the death penalty, said he’s surprised that spending on initiatives hasn’t risen even more quickly.

“Connecting to voters has become a lot more difficult,” Smith said. “Especially with all these initiatives, it simply costs more to be heard above the din of all the other choices voters have.”

3 “Initiatives are an easy way for wealthy individuals to turn pet ideas into state law.”

Not quite. During the last 25 years, the major financial players have been corporations, not wealthy individuals.

The Oregonian looked up each campaign donation of $25,000 or more to identify the biggest contributors, then determined whether the money came from individuals, labor unions, nonprofits or corporations. Overall, individuals accounted for only 7 percent of these big checks. Corporations accounted for 42 percent.

Wealthy individuals such as George Soros, the international financier who helped bankroll 1998’s medical marijuana measure, are usually playing offense by proposing initiatives that shake up the status quo. Corporations are typically playing defense — and these opponents are overwhelmingly the side with deeper pockets.

Over the quarter century studied, campaign committees urging “yes” votes spent $18.5 million. Committees urging “no” votes have spent nearly $68 million, and the gap has grown larger over time.

Of all those large donations made to defeat initiatives, more than half came from businesses.

4 “The courts are overturning citizen initiatives far more often.”

Not really. The rate has increased in 25 years but not drastically.

In the early and middle periods, courts overturned 20 percent of the successful measures, either in whole or in part. In the ’90s, the rate edged up to 26 percent — not much of a difference.

It’s possible that fewer initiatives will end up being challenged in the future. The reason is a 1998 state Supreme Court ruling that requires the secretary of state to screen initiatives to make sure they don’t contain more than a single amendment to the constitution.

Since that ruling, about a dozen proposed initiatives have been rejected before backers could start signature gathering.

“We’re finally seeing the courts step in and put some reasonable balance into the process,” says David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, “one that will help voters know what they’re voting on.”

5 “Conservative causes are more successful with initiatives than liberal causes are.”


Of the 99 initiatives since 1976, only 75 can be identified as either liberal or conservative in their leaning.

As conservative, we classified measures calling for tax reductions, stricter penalties for crimes, restrictions on abortions or unions’ political activity — or any other measure obviously funded by conservative groups.

Liberal measures included calls for new or higher taxes, stricter environmental protections, restrictions on nuclear energy, broader legal uses for marijuana or any other cause mainly paid for by liberal groups.

Liberal proposals had the upper hand in the early period, but things evened out. Overall, 36 percent of the conservative measures have won approval, and almost 40 percent of the liberal measures have won.

Even in the 1990s, as more conservative politics took hold in the Oregon Legislature, liberal initiatives enjoyed a 41 percent success rate compared with 39 percent for the conservative measures.

Moreover, when the elections are close, the conservatives get burned. Thirteen initiatives since 1976 have come within 5 percentage points of winning. Each of those narrowly losing efforts was a conservative measure.

6 “Conservative campaigns are better funded than liberal causes.”

True, but the gap has closed dramatically in recent years.

From 1976 to 1990, conservative committees outspent their liberal foes by more than 2-1. In the 1990s, though, committees backing liberal causes spent $23.7 million — not far behind the $24.6 million spent by conservative opponents.

Corporations are the big players for conservative campaigns, providing nearly two thirds of large donations. Of the large donations to liberal measures, half came from unions and 41 percent came from nonprofit groups.

The minor players: individual donors. They accounted for about 11 percent of large contributions for conservative causes and 2 percent for liberal ones.

7 “Initiatives have become longer and hence more complicated.”


The problem with wording, critics claim, is that measures become hard for voters to understand, that they’re so poorly written that the Legislature struggles to implement them or courts must overturn them.

The assumption about length is not really true. Since the ’80s, the average length of initiative measures has been about 1,400 words. That compares with an average of about 1,200 words in the post-Watergate period.

Statutory initiatives, which change state law, tend to be wordier than initiatives that amend the constitution. But constitutional amendments, which are immune to tampering from the Legislature, are on the rise.

In the early period, a quarter of the measures were constitutional amendments. In the mid-’80s a third were amendments, and in the ’90s more than half were amendments.

8 “Voters are turned off by too many initiatives.”

Well, if voter turnout is any indication, this just isn’t true.

One way to gauge voter enthusiasm is to compare turnout on initiatives to turnout for the presidential races every four years. Initiatives have never drawn the interest that presidential contests do, but the gap has been consistently small.

In fact, the largest difference was in 1976, when about 67 percent of Oregon’s registered voters cast ballots for initiatives and 72 percent voted for president. Ever since, though, initiative turnout has come within 3 percentage points of presidential turnout.

Librarian Lynne Palombo and editorial aide Jenna Thompson of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.