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The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center: How It Promotes Big Labor’s Political Strategy

The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center: How It Promotes Big Labor’s Political Strategy

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Published by James Dellinger
Summary: In 2006, voters in 37 states
faced a total of 203 state ballot initiatives
and supporters and opponents of
these measures raised and spent more
than $350 million. Many ballot initiatives
were sponsored and supported by
labor unions, and often they received help
from the little-known Washington, D.C.-
based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center,
which quietly provides assistance in promoting
ballot initiative campaigns in
states where the initiative process exists.
But the Center plays another increasingly
important role for Big Labor and
its allies. It devises tactics for blocking
ballot initiatives by union opponents
using aggressive methods.
Summary: In 2006, voters in 37 states
faced a total of 203 state ballot initiatives
and supporters and opponents of
these measures raised and spent more
than $350 million. Many ballot initiatives
were sponsored and supported by
labor unions, and often they received help
from the little-known Washington, D.C.-
based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center,
which quietly provides assistance in promoting
ballot initiative campaigns in
states where the initiative process exists.
But the Center plays another increasingly
important role for Big Labor and
its allies. It devises tactics for blocking
ballot initiatives by union opponents
using aggressive methods.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: James Dellinger on May 11, 2013
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The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
How It Promotes Big Labor’s Political Strategy
By James Dellinger & Karl Crow 
Summary: In 2006, voters in 37 states faced a total of 203 state ballot initia-tives and supporters and opponents of these measures raised and spent morethan $350 million. Many ballot initia-tives were sponsored and supported bylabor unions, and often they received help from the little-known Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center,which quietly provides assistance in pro-moting ballot initiative campaigns instates where the initiative process exists. But the Center plays another increas-ingly important role for Big Labor and its allies. It devises tactics for blockingballot initiatives by union opponentsusing aggressive methods.
hen labor unions want states toincrease the minimum wage,fund embryonic stem cell re-search and require more reliance on so-called renewable energy, they often seek help from the Ballot Initiative StrategyCenter (BISC). This little-known group
April 2008
Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
page 1
Teacher Unions BombardBallot Boxes
page 5 
Labor Notes
page 6 
W
provides technical assistance in helpingunions put initiatives on state ballots.BISC also helps unions defeat ballot ini-tiatives that protect property rights, andit works against ballot initiatives such asthe Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) thatare sponsored or supported by conserva-tive and libertarian groups.However, BISC is moving into a newarea in 2008: It is using its expertise tothwart efforts by the groups it opposesfrom making use of the ballot initiativeprocess altogether. BISC has become the“go-to” group that Big Labor relies onwhenever it wants to organize a “blockercampaign,” a tactic unions use to restrictaccess to the ballot initiative process. Thevictims of these tactics argue that BISC’sabuse of the initiative process is a form of political thuggery that has no place in ademocracy.
Conservatives Take the Initiative
The ballot initiative—an electoral strat-egy that allows citizens to create lawsthrough “direct democracy”—is neithernew nor uniquely American. In 1891 Swit-zerland revised its federal constitution toprovide for a ballot initiative, enabling itscitizens to propose and enact changes tothe national constitution. The conceptbecame very popular in the United Statesduring the Progressive era from the 1890suntil World War I. South Dakota was thefirst state to adopt a statewide ballot ini-tiative in 1898. California, Maine, Michi-gan, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon andUtah instituted similar processes by 1911,and by 1918 ballot initiatives were legal in24 states, mostly in the West. Many statesalso adopted the referendum (to changeexisting legislation) and the recall (of stateofficials), creating a triple-barreled elec-
The little-known Ballot Initiative Strategy Center works with a “who’swho” list of labor unions and union-funded nonprofit organizations tosupport ballot initiative campaigns for liberal causes.
 
Labor Watch
April 2008 Page 2 
Editor:
Patrick J. Reilly
Publisher:
Terrence Scanlon
Address:
1513 16th Street, NWWashington, DC 20036-1480
Phone:
(202) 483-6900
Email:
preilly@capitalresearch.org
Website:
www.capitalresearch.org
Labor Watch
is published by CapitalResearch Center, a non-partisan educationand research organization classified by theIRS as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Reprintsare available for $2.50 prepaid to CapitalResearch Center.
toral mechanism that was intended to givecitizens direct power over politics. Enthu-siasm for the ballot initiative declined af-ter World War I however and only Alaska,Florida, Mississippi, Wyoming and Wash-ington, D.C. subsequently adopted it.Although its reputation as an instru-ment of popular democracy is not entirelywarranted, the ballot initiative has servedas a citizens’ check on representative gov-ernment. According to the Initiative andReferendum Institute at the University of Southern California, states with ballot ini-tiatives have adopted roughly 40 percentof the 2,051 initiatives offered since 1904,with nearly two-thirds of them in Arizona,California, Colorado, North Dakota, Or-egon and Washington. Since the processgained renewed interest in the late 1970sand 1980s, 303 of 660 initiatives appear-ing on state ballots were passed by theirelectorates. But these numbers don’t tellthe whole story. Many proposed initia-tives never get on the ballot and many of those on the ballot do not pass. Accord-ing to the Institute, only 26 percent of allCalifornia initiatives appeared on the bal-lot—and only eight percent were ap-proved. During the 2000 election, 76 ini-tiatives appeared on state ballots, but theyrepresented only 22 percent of all the ini-tiatives offered during that year. Since1996, the number of initiatives appearingon state ballots has averaged 70 per elec-tion year, with the 1996 elections the highwater mark, when 39 of 96 state ballot ini-tiatives were adopted by voters. But com-pare this to the number of bills that areadopted by state legislatures. In 1996 thelegislatures in the 24 states that providefor a ballot initiative passed more than14,000 bills.Still ballot initiatives and popular refer-enda remain popular devices for mobiliz-ing voters. And it’s not simply that theprocess creates voter enthusiasm. Twostudies published in 2001 showed that thepresence of initiatives on the ballot canincrease voter turnout from three to fourpercent—a not statistically insignificantamount. Moreover, during the last 30 yearsthe ballot initiative process has been dis-covered by citizen groups that have usedit to their advantage.As during the Progressive Era, localactivists have found that “direct democ-racy” measures can move state policieswhen a state legislature will not act.California’s ballot initiative process, inparticular, has been dominated by conser-vative and libertarian activists seeking tocheck the excesses of the liberal-domi-nated California legislature. The state hasseen the passage of ballot initiatives cut-ting property taxes (Proposition 13 in1978), denying illegal aliens the use of public services (Proposition 187 in 1994)and repealing the use of racial and genderpreferences in state universities (Propo-sition 209 in 1996). Proposition 13 is widelycredited with jumpstarting the nationwide1980s’ taxpayer backlash that loweredtaxes through ballot initiatives and legis-lation.A Colorado constitutional amendmentbarring local authorities from expandinganti-discrimination law to include homo-sexuals was passed by popular referen-dum in 1992 before it was struck down bythe U.S. Supreme Court in
 Romer v. Evans
(1996). In 2004, state constitutional amend-ments banning gay marriage were on theballot, and they passed in 11 states (Ar-kansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan,Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota,Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon and Utah). In2006, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan,Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota,Oregon and South Carolina passed ballotinitiatives limiting the use of eminent do-main, although similar measures failed inCalifornia, Idaho and Washington.Technically, some of these proposalswere not ballot initiatives because theywere legislative referrals from state legis-latures to the voters. Nevertheless, theyembody the concept of statewide voterdecision-making consistent with a ballotinitiative.
Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
Labor unions and liberal groups havewatched as conservative and libertariangroups enjoy ballot initiative successeson the economic and social fronts, andthat has spurred them to undertake a simi-lar strategy. In 2006, so-called“progressives” used state ballot initia-tives to propose renewable energy stan-dards and increases to the minimum wage.The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, witha mere $780,000 in revenue in 2006, claimedsuccess in 47 of 61 BISC-funded ballotinitiatives.In Missouri voters passed a state bal-lot initiative to fund embryonic stem cellresearch. Its presence on the ballot waswidely credited as a major factor thathelped Democrat Claire McCaskill defeatRepublican incumbent Senator Jim Talent.Proponents of the stem cell measureoutspent opponents 30-to-1, and they hadthe conspicuous support of Hollywoodstar Michael J. Fox who suffers fromParkinson’s disease. Many voters be-lieved Senator Talent was trying to“straddle the issue” because he touted hissupport for research on adult stem cellswhile opposing research on embryonicstem cells.Founded in 1999, BISC believesprogressives were caught flatfooted asconservatives used ballot initiatives toadvance their legislative goals. It intendsto turn the tables on the Right. But moreis at stake than enacting bits of legisla-tion. For BISC the process of putting ini-tiatives on the ballot is a way to “frameelection issues, increase progressive turn-out, house coordinated field operations,draw contrasts between candidates, buildvoter lists and empower progressive or-ganizations.” This is a comprehensivemission to which BISC brings an exten-sive program of operations. BISC runsdatabases that track leftwing funding forballot initiatives. It trains activists to run
 
April 2008 
Labor Watch
Page 3 
initiative and referenda campaigns. And itsupports public relations efforts to pro-mote voter knowledge about state initia-tives and voter awareness about wherecandidates and office-holders stand onthem.In a 2006 interview with National PublicRadio, BISC Executive Director KristinaWilfore explained, “Minimum wage, Iwould say, is the first example where we’reusing a counterstrategy in the same way
BISC does more than promote liberal and labor-backed initiatives. It also tracks the funding of ballotinitiatives and tries to prevent conservatives fromgetting their intiatives on state ballots.
BISC Financial Support
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center isreally two organizations. One is classifiedby the IRS as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare”organization, which allows it to lobby. Theother is the 501(c)(3) Ballot Initiative Strat-egy Center Foundation, which can “edu-cate” but not “lobby.” Contributions to itare tax-deductible.BISC does not publicly reveal its do-nors. But a search of foundation grantsthat BISC is offering advice to ten statecoalitions for the November elections.How much of the BISC budget comes fromunions and liberal foundations is unclear.However, BISC comes highly recom-mended by the New Progressive Coalition,a donor pooling operation. NPC claimsBISC is a “leading strategist for progres-sive ballot initiatives, such as living wage.Also defeats conservative ballot initia-tives like eminent domain.”
Thwarting Ballot Access
BISC does more than promote liberal andlabor-backed ballot initiatives. It alsotracks the funding of ballot initiatives andtries to prevent conservatives from get-ting their initiatives on state ballots.Union-backed BISC does not see moneygenerally as a threat to popular democ-racy, only money funding conservative orlibertarian initiatives.In a 2007 report, BISC highlighted itscampaign to root out conservative fund-ing of ballot initiatives, targeting ArnoConsulting for its paid efforts to get ini-tiatives on the ballot in Florida, Massa-chusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washing-ton. The report catalogs how BISC-alliedactivists tried keep the initiatives off theballot by challenging the legality of sig-natures submitted on initiative petitions.In its January 2008 newsletter, BISCidentified National Voter Outreach, JSMInc. and Arno Consulting as “fraudsters”who were architects of conservative bal-lot measures. BISC threatened to cut off support for any progressive activists whorelied on these groups to develop ballotinitiatives. BISC maintains a “rogues gal-lery” of prominent conservative and lib-ertarian referenda activists, which in-cludes California’s Ward Connerly andTABOR advocate Howard Rich.Frustrated by the advantages conser-vatives and libertarians enjoy in state-levelorganization and funding, BISC and otherprogressive groups are turning to thecourts and the initiative process itself toneutralize that advantage. BISC has foundthat residency requirements and prohibi-tions on paid signature collection are veryeffective ways to frustrate conservativesignature-gathering. In particular, BISCtargets a group called National Voter Out-that the Right has, on issues like same-sex marriage and anti-abortion issues, anda range of things that they’ve pushed totake controversial hot button issues tovoters, and to have some influence in elec-tions at large.” Wilfore’s minimum wagestrategy seems to have been demonstra-bly successful because these measuresdrove many voters to the polls. Accord-ing to some state exit polls, voters whosupported state ballot initiatives to in-crease the minimum wage also voted 2-to-1 for Democratic candidates.The success of liberal and progressiveballot initiatives in 2006 showed thestrength of BISC and its allies. BISC mo-bilized opposition to Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) initiatives that were pro-posed and defeated in Maine, Nebraskaand Oregon. BISC also supported “livingwage” ballot initiatives increasing stateminimum wage laws in Arizona, Colorado,Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.While a BISC-supported renewable en-ergy initiative was defeated in California,a similar measure passed in Washington.In 2007, BISC continued its strategy,working against a school choice initiativein Utah and efforts to reduce taxes in Or-egon and Washington, while supportingincreased state spending on embryonicstem cell research in Texas and New Jer-sey.turned up nine grants totaling $205,250from sources including the RockefellerFamily Fund and the Tides Foundation.The BISC Foundation had revenues of about $202,000 in 2006. In the prior twoyears, the Foundation received substan-tial grants from billionaire George Sorosand his Open Society Institute, the Na-tional Abortion Rights Action League(NARAL) and the far-left Washington,D.C.-based Arca Foundation. At least 15grants totaling $510,073 went to the BISCFoundation since its creation in 1999.BISC has strong union ties. Board mem-bers represent a who’s who of nationalunion muscle from the AFL-CIO (whichdonated $25,000 in 2005), the InternationalAssociation of Machinists, the AmericanFederation of Teachers, the National Edu-cation Association ($75,000 in 2005), theUnited Food and Commercial Workers,AFSCME, and the Service Employees In-ternational Unions (which donated$25,000 in both 2005 and 2006). The unionsprovided cash grants and contracted withBISC to assist them at the state level. Of-ficials from People for the American Wayand the leftwing Center for Policy Alter-natives also are members of the BISCboard of trustees.The New Progressive Coalition esti-mates that BISC will have a $3 million bud-get for the 2008 election cycle and notes

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