At the bottom of the lengthy – and meaty – November ballot could be the key to victory for either Lee Brand or Henry R. Perea in the Fresno mayor’s race.
Yes, there is the epic presidential clash between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, and that just might matter as voters register their opinion of the two highly unpopular candidates.
In what is expected to be a close Fresno mayor’s race, however, one or more of the 17 ballot initiatives that will be at or near the bottom of every voter’s ballot could be the difference maker in the election.
There is Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational marijuana use. Or Proposition 57, which would revamp state prison parole rules and which is widely disliked by Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. Proposition 63 would prohibit possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and require background checks for bullet buyers.
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Then there are dueling propositions – 62 and 66. Proposition 62 would repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole; Proposition 66 would alter the appeals process to speed up executions.
In almost every statewide election, voter turnout tends to be driven much more by high-profile ballot initiatives than even the top of the ticket candidate races.
Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics
“This will definitely drive some people to the polls,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the initiative process.
The problem, Kousser said, is that experts have “no clear sense” on who these voters will be and whom they will vote for. That makes it harder to know if Brand or Perea would benefit from the expected increase in turnout.
There is wide agreement, however, that it could and should prompt both the candidates to widen the campaign net they will be casting over the next two months.
In the primary, both candidates – as well as third-place finisher H. Spees – walked precincts with voter rolls that showed the most loyal voters. Not everyone is registered to vote, and many who are only vote occasionally. It’s impractical to knock on all these doors, though there are efforts in Fresno to reach these “low-propensity voters.”
That said, experts said the campaigns need to try to identify those occasional voters who might feel unsafe or those who want marijuana legalized.
Maybe they increase the number of households they solicit during phone banking, which are calls to voters to encourage them to vote. Or maybe it is sending mailers to more than just regular voters. In the widest possible sense, it would be an increase in television or radio advertisements.
Adding to the mix will be the money spent on advertising by the supporters and opponents of the various initiatives, which Kousser estimates could be upward of $100 million. The constant drumbeat of campaign mail and commercials could also boost turnout.
Lots of initiatives
It goes beyond just the crime-related initiatives and those related to gun control and pot legalization. Voters will, among other initiatives, also be asked:
▪ To approve the sale of $9 billion in bonds to pay for school construction and modernization projects.
▪ To raise tobacco taxes $2 a pack.
▪ To accept a law banning single-use plastic bags.
▪ To require the use of condoms in adult filmmaking.
▪ To extend by 12 years the temporary personal income tax increases approved in 2012 for earnings above $250,000.
▪ To require statewide voter approval on projects that would need more than $2 billion in state revenue bonds to fund.
That initiative, Proposition 53, could make trouble for two projects backed by Gov. Jerry Brown – high-speed rail and the twin tunnels that would carry Northern California water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“In almost every statewide election, voter turnout tends to be driven much more by high-profile ballot initiatives than even the top of the ticket candidate races,” said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “Because this is such a crowded ballot, it’s more important than normal to determine which of those initiatives will end up driving the vote more than others – or on which side.”
Both mayoral campaigns say they are aware of the situation and believe they can turn it to their advantage.
“Between the divisive presidential rhetoric and hot-button initiatives, we believe it will result in a high voter turnout, especially with the decline-to-state voter,” Perea said. “Based on our survey, this voter trends to my side of the ledger on Election Day.”
But Tim Orman, Brand’s political consultant, is equally confident that some of the initiatives play into Brand’s natural base of support – specifically Propositions 57, 62 and 66. Those are crime-related ones.
Mims and Dyer, among others, gathered last week to urge a “no” vote on 57, an initiative pushed by Brown that proponents say will amend the state constitution to allow parole for some nonviolent felons, but which opponents say will allow early release of violent criminals.
“I think 57 is going to help our campaign dramatically,” Orman said. “I think organically it is going to bring more voters to the polls who are going to vote for Lee Brand.”
A wash in the end?
But Kousser, the UC San Diego political science professor, said that with a ballot this big, the initiative battles could make it wash for a race like Fresno mayor.
“There’s an amalgam of issues left, right, center,” he said.
Shaun Bowler, a University of California, Riverside, political science professor, said it might help if Perea and Brand took opposing viewpoints on some of the highest-profile initiatives. Perea and Brand, however, know Fresno well, and both are likely to skew more conservative – especially on the crime-and-punishment-related initiatives.
Given the issues, there’s lot of stuff for people to vote for – and vote against – on this ballot.
University of California, Riverside, political science professor Shaun Bowler
There’s also plenty of debate about the top of the ticket. Kousser thinks that with the ballot initiatives canceling each other out, the top of the ticket becomes more important. He thinks Fresno’s heavy Latino population will come out in high numbers to oppose the controversial Trump, who has angered many Latinos with his proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and by saying Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
“There is one word on ballots that will be pivotal, and that’s Trump,” Kousser said. Democratic voter registration is increasing, he said, and that’s because of Trump.
That could benefit Perea.
Schnur didn’t see it that way, saying with California and its 55 electoral votes all but certain to go to Clinton, that’s not what will motivate the electorate. What could, he said, is the U.S. Senate race between two Democrats – Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez. What it won’t likely do, Schnur said, is motivate Republicans, who will have no candidate in the race. Again, that could benefit Perea, the Democrat in the race.
It’s all the more important, some experts said, that the campaigns – and Brand specifically – look for Republican-friendly initiatives that could help win the Fresno mayor election.
Said Bowler: “Given the issues, there’s lot of stuff for people to vote for – and vote against – on this ballot.”