- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

They can’t vote, but the gray wolves of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula will have a direct stake in the outcome of the midterm elections next month.

In addition to hot Senate and gubernatorial races, Michigan voters will be asked whether to overturn two laws passed by the Republican-dominated legislature authorizing the first-ever wolf hunt in the state. A group called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected has spent over $1 million on petition drives to junk the wolf-hunt laws, claiming they are written too broadly, while Drew YoungeDyke, a spokesman for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, defends the proposed hunt as a “proactive management tool.”

The Michigan battle is one of some 146 initiatives, referenda and other measures on the ballots this midterm season, on issues ranging from abortion, gun rights and gambling to redistricting, the minimum wage and state official salaries. (Another 12 ballot questions have already been voted on this year, for a total of 158.) Some 35 are initiatives signed by registered voters in petition drives, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

The number of ballot questions this year is actually down, from 188 in 2012 and the peak of 226 set in 2006, according to the website Ballotpedia.com. The last time the number of statewide ballot measures dropped below 160 was back in 1988.

“Ballot initiatives are very important because they’re a form of direct democracy. The goal of the ballot initiative is to put more decision-making in the hands of the voters,” said Joel Middleton, visiting assistant professor of applied statistics at New York University.

Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, has a theory about the recent drop in the number of state ballot measures.

“The process [of ballot measures] is getting difficult to use,” he said.

Mr. Middleton’s research found that the amount spent on ballot initiatives affected voting patterns. He determined in the study that money can change initiatives “by persuading people to vote in a direction they otherwise would not have voted.” Mr. YoungeDyke agreed and said it was relatively easy in states like Michigan to put referendums on the ballot, provided there is enough money behind the effort.

There will be 41 states and the District of Columbia voting on the ballot measures. The District, which already allows marijuana for medical purposes, will be voting along with Oregon and Alaska on whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana. Colorado and the state of Washington legalized recreational marijuana through ballot initiatives in 2012.

The D.C. Board of Elections voted unanimously in August to approve the petition signed by tens of thousands of residents required to qualify for the Nov. 4 election. The legalization of recreational marijuana will be the only initiative on the District’s ballot in November.

Ballot questions can even spark voter interest and boost turnout in states not considered political battlegrounds by the pundits. South Dakota voters, for example, will weigh a measure that would give state residents more choices within their health insurance networks by allowing doctors who agree to the conditions set forth by insurers, including payments for services provided to patients, to join the insurer’s “preferred providers” list. Preferred providers, also known as in-network doctors, usually charge less for services than those outside the network.

The measure has split the medical community with the state’s medical association — dominated by doctors — and specialty hospitals in favor of it and health insurers and large hospital networks opposed, the Associated Press reported this week.

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