The divisive issues that spurred voter turnout in 2004 and helped decide the U.S. presidency will be back with a vengeance for midterm elections in November.
This time, they could shift the balance of power in the Senate, an outcome with broad implications for the remaining two years of President George W. Bush's term, and could affect governor's races in states certain to be part of the presidential battleground landscape in 2008.
Ballot initiatives that would define marriage, raise the minimum wage, ban affirmative action hiring and endorse embryonic stem-cell research are among the measures that have been gaining the necessary signatures to earn spots on the Nov. 7 ballot in several states.
Those issues could bring out more voters in states such as Missouri , Ohio and Montana , where the results of competitive Senate races could determine whether Republicans keep majority control or Democrats break the Republican lock on Congress.
"Initiatives tend to shape turnout substantially in non-presidential elections," said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California .
On Election Day in 2004, a presidential year, initiatives on gay marriage and civil unions were on the ballot in 11 states. Two states Louisiana and Missouri had approved bans earlier in the year. Bush benefited as religious conservatives, a key element of the Republican base, turned out to vote and helped him defeat Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
Analysts and academics who have studied election results say initiatives in midterm elections are about twice as likely to increase turnout by a few percentage points as measures on the ballot in presidential elections.
"One or two initiatives on the ballot during these (midterm) elections may be sufficient to stimulate increased participation, especially if the measures concern salient or controversial policy questions, such as gay marriage or affirmative action," wrote Caroline J. Tolbert of Kent State University and Daniel A. Smith of the University of Florida in the March 2005 issue of American Politics Research.
Absent the cacophony of the presidential campaign, the ballot initiative issues often become the focal point of Senate or governor campaigns.
"When they're on the ballot, it means the candidate can't ignore them," Garrett said.
In Missouri , a ballot measure on stem-cell research has complicated the re-election campaign of Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who is in a tight race with Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill.
The initiative would guarantee that any federally allowed stem-cell research or treatments can occur in Missouri . The conservative Talent had backed a federal bill to criminalize the cloning of human embryos. He recently dropped his support for that bill but has not taken a stand on the ballot initiative. McCaskill supports the measure.
Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center , said activists on her side recognize that initiatives are electoral tools that could drive voter turnout, a factor she said conservatives clearly see, too.
"In 2006, these initiatives speak to the struggle in this country to define the role of government," Wilfore said, reports the AP.
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