Ever since Colorado decided its first
ballot issue in 1912 — shooting down prohibition as a state law — voters have decided many of the state's most controversial issues, some of which are called wedge issues because of how adamantly people take sides.
And when people take sides, they're more likely to vote and, logic dictates, they're more likely to support a like-minded party and candidates on the same ballot.
Colorado, however, has bucked the logic of partisan issues benefiting their partisan allies on the ballot. And in this fall's closest races, when turnout matters most, the ballot includes four issues, three that appeal most to the right and one to the left.
"Ballot issues definitely affect who turns out," said Donetta Davidson, Colorado secretary of state for the 2000 election, one of the most wedge-issue-filled elections in the state's history. "It's not the parties that put these issues on the ballots, but usually outside groups from out of state. We always have a few people, though, who will vote on the initiative and nothing else on the ballot."
Every election cycle, national media measure the political temperature in battleground states by the issues citizens have petitioned on the ballot, and whether the issues benefit one party or the other.
But while Colorado has been a widget factory for wedge issues since 2000, citizen initiatives ranging from abortion bans to legal marijuana, and tax cuts to tax hikes, election outcomes debunk the common wisdom on their associated political sway.
Banning same-sex measures, which helped fire up Christian conservative voters, was on the ballot in 11 states, including five battleground states, in 2004. Democrats and Republicans cited it as a major boost to the re-election of President Bush, who favored a ban.
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But when Colorado passed its gay marriage ban with a 55 percent majority in 2006, Bob Beauprez, the current GOP nominee for Colorado governor, lost his gubernatorial bid that year to Democrat Bill Ritter by 17 points.
The fall ballot this year has four issues: personhood, casino-style gambling, making public teachers' union contracts open to the public, and labeling for genetically modified food.
Historically, abortion-related issues such as personhood, gambling and battling unions have been felt more passionately by conservative voting blocs. The push-back against modified foods has typically been an issue embraced by more liberal voters.
The question, however, is whether any one issue or combination of them stirs enough passion to tip the results in heated races for Colorado's governor, U.S. senator and the 6th Congressional District in a dead heat to Election Day.
A ballot-issue veteran, Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian-conservative Independence Institute in Denver, doesn't think they will. The Independence Institute is behind this year's Proposition 104 to make school boards negotiate union contracts in public.
"I don't think it's real," Caldara said of the power wedge issues may have for candidates. "The numbers just aren't there to make it worth it."
In 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore in a national squeaker, Coloradans also voted on a medical marijuana initiative that passed, more Doug Bruce-proposed tax cuts that failed, background checks at gun shows that passed, minimum school funding standards that passed, a "right to know" abortion measure that failed, and a multistate lottery that passed.
Legalizing pot and support for public schools typically energize the left. Tax issues, abortion, guns and gambling have historically been embraced by the right.
The effect of so much ballot controversy? Turnout was nearly 57.5 percent. Bush won Colorado 51 percent to 47 percent. Four years later, Bush won the state again by an identical margin over John Kerry.
The most controversial of just three ballot questions in 2004 was Referendum A, a failed measure to build $2 billion in water-storage projects. Turnout, however, grew to nearly 67 percent.
Besides the inconsistent relationship between wedge issues, turnout and how candidates fare, a ballot initiative is too difficult and expensive simply to game the system for a political party, Caldara said. This year, there were 145 attempts to get on the statewide ballot. Only four issues drew the required 85,105 verified signatures to qualify, according to the secretary of state's office.
Bob Loevy, a retired political science professor at Colorado College, though, said even unintended consequences matter to candidates. Consider marijuana legalization in 2012, when Barack Obama was up for re-election, he said.
"I don't know if Obama helped pot, or pot helped Obama," he said of the ballot. "But certainly those voters had a big interest in voting that year."
In November, Obama beat Mitt Romney 51 percent to 46 percent in Colorado. Recreational pot won 55 percent to 45 percent.
The passion ballot issues bring has turned problematic in the past couple of years, Loevy said, pointing to the two Democratic senators, John Morse and Angela Giron, who were recalled last year over their support for gun-control legislation. Another Democrat chose to resign rather than face a recall vote.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenloooper avoided an environmental issue showdown by brokering a compromise that kept fracking regulations off the ballot on which he's seeking re-election. Hickenlooper and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall support fracking, which puts them ad odds with their progressive base.
"Now a governor's most important job is to head off ballot issues he thinks are going to be damaging to the state," Loevy said. "The governor and the legislature are losing power to make decisions to the ballot box, and that's a problem for them."
Colorado ballot questions
Amendment 67: Would define the unborn as a person with legal protections, which would ban abortions.
Amendment 68: Would allow casino gambling at horse tracks to raise money for schools.
Proposition 104: Would end closed sessions for school boards negotiating teachers' contracts.
Proposition 105: Would require labeling for genetically modified food sold in Colorado.