Ballot measures: the new battle for gun rights

The next battle for gun rights won’t be fought in Congress or even in your state’s legislative body. No, the new fight is going to happen right at the ballot box, and if that doesn’t scare you it should.

We’re talking about ballot measures. Ballot measures are a form of direct democracy, while they come in several flavors, what they allow is for the citizens to create a new law (or repeal an existing law) by voting directly for or against. All 50 states allow some type of ballot measure, and almost half allow ballot initiatives, which are placed on the ballot by citizens or groups that get enough signatures to put a matter to a popular vote. Ballot measures are also incredibly dangerous for gun rights. The danger in a ballot measure is that since it is voted up or down directly, they’re incredibly susceptible to message manipulation.
Look no further than the “success” of three anti-gun ballot initiatives in my home state of Washington to understand the blueprint. Take an extremely complicated issue, distill it down to a 30-second soundbite, and get it on the ballot. Make sure your messaging is such that any dissent would involve a nuanced understanding of current gun laws or something technical, and boom you’ve got a ballot measure that stands a good chance of passing. Washington was a test run for ballot measures in other states.
We’re going to look at Washington State specifically here, because when I say that it’s been used as the testing ground for anti-gun ballot measures, I’m not kidding. Washington has had an anti-gun ballot measure on every election since 2014, and they all have passed. In every instance, the group lobbying for the anti-gun measure has dramatically outspent the pro-2A groups trying to stop a bad law from going into effect. In the 2018 election, the campaign supporting I-1639 spend over $5 million dollars to get the initiative passed. The pro-2A team? Less than $700k. A big part of why the I-1639 campaign had so much money to spend is because Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft decided to throw some pocket change at it: to the tune of over a million dollars in pocket change. Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft also tossed a cool million bucks into the campaign. In 2014, Initiative 594 passed largely because Michael Bloomberg spent money out of his own pocket to make sure it did.

This is the chief danger in ballot measures: the average voter is extremely low information, and their opinion is for sale. If a super-rich billionaire decides he or she wants to dabble in anti-gun politics, they can buy enough TV advertising with the money they have under their couch cushions to sway public opinion, especially on issues that need nuance to understand. The 2018 I-1639 campaign in Washington was a perfect example of that. On its surface the message was easy to sell: “safer schools and communities.” If someone objected to I-1639, it would be difficult to overcome the emotional appeal to a low information voter.

That is a big part of why ballot initiatives work: people tend to vote emotionally and not rationally. We’ve all been guilty of it, hell I voted for a ballot initiative because in bans vaping indoors, and I hate people who vape. The most effective way to counter a well messaged ballot measure is strong grassroots level Get Out the Vote work. GOTV is the absolute lifeblood of any election campaign, and ballot measures are definitely elections. They’re just elections for ideas instead of people. In Washington, Initiative -1639 passed with 59% of the vote, which in modern elections is pretty much a landslide. However, when you look at the numbers, it actually only passed by less than 600,000 votes. What’s even more interesting is that during the 2018 election in Washington, a state where it is very easy to vote due to their all absentee voting system, there was only 71% voter turnout. That’s approximate 1.2 million votes that just didn’t show up. Not knowing the individual county voter turnout makes it impossible for me to say whether or not the pro-2A faction could have produced enough votes to win, but the number of votes that didn’t show up could have changed the result.

Here’s the new blueprint for gun control at the state level: get a gun control measure on the ballot, then outspend the pro-2A groups by 5-8 times. Win. Lather, rinse, repeat. Don’t believe me? They’re attempting to get an AWB ban onto the Florida 2020 ballot right now. The signature drive is already underway.

Ballot measures can be defeated. It’s harder when you don’t have the resources of the other side, and the fact is that we don’t. The NRA almost stopped I-1639 in Washington with legal challenges. There are also lawsuits after the fact that can get them overturned, but that is a costly and prolonged battle. The best way for pro-2A people to defeat ballot measures is to get educated on the initiatives, and volunteer or create GOTV campaigns specifically around that measure. Get bodies to the polls and make sure people vote.

Welcome to the new fight for your gun rights.

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