Putting the question of marijuana legalization on state ballots in 2012 may be one of the most effective ways for a dispirited Democratic Party to get reluctant voters out to the polls. The wild card in the coming midterms and in 2012 will be the "surge" voters -- people who were driven to the polls in 2008 through a once-in-a-generation mix of shame at the outgoing administration and hope in a new, barrier-breaking candidate. Democrats are investing millions in figuring out how to get those voters out, and the marijuana issue is getting increasing attention from political operatives.
A survey making the rounds among strategists, which has yet to be made public, indicates that pot could be just the enticement many of these voters need: Surge voters, single women under 40 and Hispanics all told America Votes pollsters that if a legalization measure were on the Colorado ballot, they'd be more likely to come out to vote. Forty-five percent of surge voters and 47 percent of single women said they'd be more interested in voting if the question was on the ballot. Most of these were energetic, with 36 and 30 percent, respectively, saying they'd be "much more interested" in coming out to vote. Roughly half said it would make no difference. For Latinos, 32 percent said they'd be "much more interested" in voting and another 12 percent said they'd be somewhat more attracted to the idea of trudging to the polls.
Surge voters said they would support the measure by a margin of 63-35. Young single women would back it 68-31. Latinos, meanwhile, oppose it 52-46, according to the survey. "Whether it can pass or not is another question, but I think it's clear that a marijuana legalization measure has the potential to increase turnout among voting groups that are critical to Democratic success in November," said a Colorado Democratic operative, who, like most strategists employed by campaigns, prefers not to talk about marijuana on the record -- highlighting the difficulty Democrats will have threading the political needle.
Turning out an extra few percent can be the difference between winning and losing in swing states, a reality Karl Rove exploited in 2004 by papering the nation with anti-gay marriage initiatives.
Support for marijuana legalization has been ticking up over the past decade as residents of states with legal medical marijuana realize that the sky hasn't fallen. And backing has surged more recently amid deficit hysteria and a declining economy, as voters are less inclined to spend tax dollars on a drug war when instead marijuana could itself be taxed and used to create jobs.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who's been working to liberalize marijuana laws for decades, thinks that the goal may finally be in sight, saying recently that his bill to remove federal criminal penalties would pass in the next five years. "I want to be clear; that's not my major motivation," said Frank of the revenue argument. "My major motivation is personal freedom. When we outlaw marijuana or online gambling, all you do is create more criminals and deprive us of revenue."
The Service Employees International Union explored putting a pot initiative on the 2010 ballot in Washington state and engaged Project New West to poll whether it could turn liberals out. The union concluded that the move had merit in general, but in particular it wasn't impressed with how the petition drive and campaign was being organized, so didn't pursue it. (As if to confirm the SEIU's conclusion, the would-be pot organizers issued an angry statement aimed at the union when it decided not to get involved.)
In California, Democrats hope the state's legalization initiative will drive turnout and help send Barbara Boxer back to the Senate and Jerry Brown to the governor's mansion, even though both have taken positions against the measure. Because Democrats have yet to coalesce around reform of marijuana laws, the effort to link pot to the party's electoral hopes is going on quietly, the opposite of Rove's coordinated campaign with religious groups opposed to marriage rights for all Americans. A recent survey has California's marijuana initiative up 56-42, though proponents worry about the threat of major spending in opposition from the prison guards union, alcohol interests and pharmaceutical companies.
Nevada, a swing state, has twice rejected pot legalization initiatives in the past, though support increased to 44 percent in 2004, the last time it was on the ballot. Supporters plan to put it on again in 2012. Whether it can pass isn't some Democrats' top concern: As long as it can get unlikely voters to a polling station they'd otherwise avoid, it's a success.
Activists are also looking at several other states, including Oregon, Illinois, Maine and Massachusetts, the last of which greatly liberalized its pot laws through a 2008 ballot measure. Illinois and Massachusetts are unlikely to be competitive at the presidential level, but having pot on the ballot could help with House races or assist in unseating Scott Brown in 2012.
The very thought of relying on marijuana to increase motivation, however, is a difficult one to absorb. "I'd be shocked if this was our version of the right's anti-gay initiatives," said Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos. "I certainly wouldn't bank on these initiatives as part of a Democratic turnout initiative."
UPDATE: The Atlantic's Josh Green explored this question earlier.
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America