Special interest groups ramp up efforts ahead of November vote

WASHINGTON: A large number of special interest groups have launched early campaigns for major state and national ballot initiatives before the presidential race consumes the public's attention, according to public affairs experts.

WASHINGTON: A large number of special interest groups have launched early campaigns for major state and national ballot initiatives before the presidential race consumes the public's attention, according to public affairs experts. While Democrats and Republicans roll through the primary states, local outreach is leveraging the national attention on politics.

Issues targeted run the gamut, from pressure in Michigan to institute universal healthcare, to attempts to roll back property tax assessments in Florida, Arizona, and a number of other states; a petition to allow slot machines at race tracks in Maryland; and an effort to allow supermarkets in Colorado to sell hard liquor. California has been a particular hotbed of initiatives, including a proposition to change term limits, a push that has attracted intense media coverage.

While many efforts won't be voted on until November, a number of groups behind initiatives are already quite organized, and often target public-policy issues cropping up in the presidential race.

In Michigan, for example, the Michigan Health Care Security Campaign launched last week. The group is hoping to collect 380,000 legal signatures by the end of June. If that happens, the healthcare reform initiative would appear on the November ballot.

Jon Freeman, chairman of the campaign, said the effort was launched with 14 press conferences in media markets around the state last Tuesday. Tomorrow, Freeman said volunteers will fan out across the state during the presidential primary to get as many signatures as possible.

"We've got a lot of people interested in the issue and we're encouraging people to go
out into the community, go to their churches or their neighbor's, and ask them to sign the
petition," Freeman said.

Some states - including Colorado and Maryland - allow for legislative approval for ballot initiatives without needing to raise signatures for a petition. Thus, the people behind campaigns like the initiative to drop income tax in Massachusetts try to get legislative endorsements early, so they ensure that it's on the ballot, noted Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications president Joe Baerlein.

Pete Stepp, VP of communications for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), said the Web and electronic communications have been a boon to advocacy groups' organization efforts. The NTU is behind the campaign to roll back tax assessment in Florida. He added that groups are using these methods to get initiatives on voter ballots, allowing them to more easily recruit new supporters to gather signatures, as well as aid efforts to gather signatures by distributing PDF versions of petitions that supporters can distribute and notarize.

"You can never change the date of the election," Baerlein said. "At this stage in the game, the rather small investment you'd make in research and having a good understanding of the market segmentation on your questions, and... your potential messages to move voters into your column; to understand that in February rather than May is a real advantage."

Just as the White House race has started earlier than ever before, planning for outreach around ballot initiatives is starting sooner every election cycle. In addition, the money spent in support of initiatives has grown immensely, said Baerlein. This is partly because many ballot questions today are initiated or at least supported by major business interests looking to achieve goals that they've been unable to achieve legislatively.

Certainly a lot of local initiatives are mirroring national public policy concerns that are the subject of debate on the presidential campaign trail, including higher property tax assessments that, in some instances, have coincided with dropping home prices, noted Stepp. Issues stemming from environmental concerns, such as transportation and clean water, are also cropping up in ballot initiatives in various states, like North Carolina, said Capstrat CEO Ken Eudy.

"It's fair to say that states and localities are not depending on DC for lots of federal money for transit and clear water, and they are looking at ballot initiatives themselves, to pay for transportation and other things they need," he said.

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