The Basics of Ballot Initiatives and Legislative Advocacy


This is the third in a series of posts focused on steps you can take to pave the way for Death with Dignity policy reform in your state. During the first, I provided guidance on how to talk to your friends, family members, and colleagues about the issue; in the second, I offered an overview about learning the issue and engaging allies.

If you’ve progressed this far, you know a lot more about the issue than you did when you first started, you have heard intimate life and death stories from your friends and colleagues, and you have identified a small, but dedicated, group of supporters who are ready to jump into this process with you.

At its core, policy reform is about organizing and political work. This third blog post is focused on the technicalities of ballot initiative work and the legislature.

Until last year, initiatives to the people through the ballot initiative process were the only successful vehicles used to secure Death with Dignity policy reform. Both Oregon’s law and Washington’s law were passed this way, and using the ballot initiative process has been successful because the issue consistently enjoys majority support as demonstrated in public opinion polling.

Death with Dignity is the kind of issue successful at the ballot box because when the people get to vote, their natural tendency is to vote yes. Managing a voter initiative on Death with Dignity is all about stopping the erosion of votes that happens when opponent campaigns begin running television advertising against the laws. If you’ve watched ballot initiatives on this issue, you’ll see multiple polls showing the “yes” side of the vote ahead in the months and weeks leading up to Election Day. During the final days of the campaign, the gap closes as the opponent’s messaging sways uncommitted individuals away from the “yes” vote.

The opponent campaigns are successful in eroding support by using two primary strategies: raising large sums of money from churches (mostly the Catholic Church) while deflecting voter attention away from funding sources and running misleading television advertising in the last six weeks before Election Day.

Unfortunately, in political environments, campaign advertising does not have to be rooted in the truth. In the Maine Death with Dignity campaign, the opponents ran advertising showing medication prescribed under the proposed law being delivered by mail and a young child picking up the prescription at the mailbox. This advertising was false, as per federal law no medications of this type may be delivered through the post office. It was frightening to some voters who falsely believed these medications could have been delivered by mail. There were no ads featuring Catholic bishops or priests saying, “we donated $1.3M to fight Death with Dignity in Maine because we think it’s wrong,” (a more honest depiction of the true opposition to the proposed law).

Because ballot initiatives are expensive and rife with dirty campaign tactics, if you are interested in securing Death with Dignity through this process, you will need professional advice and a lot of money. This should not act as a deterrent, though, because the initiative process is the people’s process and individuals have successfully launched initiatives in several states.

What can you do to prepare for such an endeavor? Research and planning is the answer. You can research ballot initiatives and read all about them through the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center or Ballotpedia. Through your research, you will find whether or not you state even has the ballot initiative process (only 26 states and DC offer the initiative process or voter referendums). You and your core group of supporters can volunteer for a ballot initiative on a different issue, thereby building practical experience by participating in all phases of the campaign.

It takes three to five years to successfully launch and implement a ballot initiative campaign, but most of the early work involves taking very small steps. You might be surprised how far you get taking very small steps.

I must add a note of caution here. Because our issue is politically controversial, ballot initiatives are incredibly expensive. About half of the money needed to run a pro campaign is raised within the state and about half outside of the state in question. You will need a national partner to help you raise money outside your region, so please contact us as you start out with those first steps!

The legislative process is equally daunting, and our issue has been successful in a state legislature only once. It may seem counterintuitive, but legislators are less moved by public opinion, so the presence of majority support for Death with Dignity has not been a factor in pushing legislators to advocate for policy reform.

Leaping into the legislative arena involves some of the same learning activities you might take with a ballot initiative: volunteering to support a bill making its way through the legislature, reading your state legislature’s website to understand the process of passing a law, and meeting with your own state legislator or attending another group’s Lobby Day. Even re-familiarizing yourself with the old Schoolhouse Rocks I’m Just a Bill video is entertaining and educational.

Similar to ballot initiative work, successful legislative work requires the hiring of professional lobbyists, political strategists, and grassroots organizers. It is relatively easy to find a legislator to get a Death with Dignity bill introduced; it is exceedingly difficult for that bill to gain momentum. It takes local organizing, a deep understanding of the rules of both chambers of the legislature, professional lobbyists, and a supportive coalition. A passionate group of political novices can move a bill forward, it happens sometimes, but it takes sophisticated planning and resources.

There is so much information to share about ballot initiatives and legislative efforts, and I hope I have given you a short introduction into these two worlds. If you have a point of clarity you would like to explore, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Next up: Building Infrastructure and Effective Coalitions (And be sure to catch part one in this series, So You Want to Pass a Death with Dignity Law in Your State and part two: Engaging Allies and Learning the Issue!)

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