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November 6, 2018

Is it too soon to start making predictions about 2020 swing-state criminal justice ballot initiatives?

I have been following closely the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot in Ohio, known as Issue 1, in part because I think it could be a sign of things to come in state criminal justice reform efforts.  Notably, California in 2014 and Oklahoma(!) in 2016 charted a path for this kind of initiative effort, but Ohio is a special kind of swing state that rightly garners a special kind of electoral attention.  And this new Washington Post piece, headlined "Ohio ballot initiative on drug penalties is motivating voters in Cleveland," spotlights why I am already thinking ahead to 2020 before seeing any official results from 2018:

Many African American voters here cited two motivations for getting to the polls: to vote against a Republican Party they see as increasingly hostile to their community and to support Issue 1, which would reduce drug penalties.

Kim Thomas, minority engagement consultant for the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, said the ballot initiative is helping turn out voters in Cleveland. “Lots of black people went to jail for crack in the 1980s, and a lot of them are still there. Right now, the minority community is saying, ‘No more, no more,'” she said. “We want the same opportunity for treatment instead of jail time, and if Issue 1 is gonna speak to that, then we’re gonna support it.”...

Darrell Johnson, 50, an out-of-work phlebotomist, cites voting rights as a primary reason for approving Issue 1. “You might get a felony charge for marijuana and you will never vote again in your life,” he said. He sees penalties being applied unevenly, based on race. “I know white people who get caught, they get sent to programs. They can still vote. But we can’t.”

Cuyahoga County Board of Elections officials are calling voter turnout for this midterm election “historic.” Mike West, a manager with the elections board, said the county hit at least 18,000 early voters as of 2 p.m., compared with about 6,000 in the 2014 midterms and 5,000 in the 2010 midterms. 

Because lots of factors are influencing turn-out this election cycle in Ohio and elsewhere, it will be hard to say with any certainty that a criminal justice reform initiative played a special role in getting certain voters to the polls. But there are plenty of reasons to believe ballot initiatives on topics like marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform can get younger voters and minority voters somewhat more interested in exercising the franchise. And with so many big swing states having an initiative process — states like Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada along with Ohio — I suspect we may see an even larger number of big criminal justice ballot efforts in 2020 than we have seen this year (which already has a whole lot).

November 6, 2018 at 11:37 AM | Permalink

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