The Truth About the 'Marijuana Effect' in America's Elections

Last week, a bipartisan George Washington University Battleground poll made national headlines when the top Democratic researcher, Celinda Lake, said that ballot questions on marijuana could increase young voter turnout.

“We’re very excited about our marijuana numbers in this poll, not only for personal consumption to get through this election, but in terms of turnout," Lake told USA Today. “What’s really interesting and, I think, a totally unwritten story is that everyone taks about marriage equality hitting a tipping point (of acceptance). Marijuana is hitting the tipping point. It’s really astounding how fast it’s moved.”  

Lake’s findings may be good news for the legalization movement in the long run. But Democrats should not conclude that the presence of pot issues on a handful of ballots in 2014 will bring out a wider youth vote and help them stay in power nationally. That’s because there aren’t many states with marijuana initiatives on the ballot in 2014—just Alaska and Florida so far, although Oregon is expecting a measure on the fall ballot. Pot may help turn out voters in those states, but that’s not unfolding on a scale that would impact whether the Senate keeps its Democratic majority.

Democrats have been seeking an electoral silver bullet for this year’s federal elections. They keep on hearing that constituencies that twice helped elect President Obama will skip voting this year. On Monday, the Times said that Latinos were deeply frustrated with both parties, blaming the GOP for blocking immigration reform and Obama for deporting millions of family members.  

The Democrats have been looking to efforts such as minimum wage increase ballot measures to bring out voters. This November, four states, including three with key Senate races—Alaska, Arkansas and Michigan—will vote on wage increases. In contrast, Alaska will vote on legalizing recreational pot in August, where it will likely lure voters in that off-season contest. Alaska’s inititiative would allow people age 21 and older to have up to an ounce and six plants, and legalize paraphernalia.

In Florida, the stakes will be big, but not really touching the national political balance. It will vote on legalizing medical marijuana as a state constitutional amendment this fall. There, Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican governor, is running for his old job back as a Democrat. Crist backs medical marijuana legalization, which reformers say is a eyebrow-raising change from his days as a governor who signed harsh drug penalty laws. Meanwhile, the Tea Party Republican incumbent, Gov. Rick Scott, opposes legalizing medical marijuana. Undoubtedly, Crist’s hopes should be helped by a pro-pot young turnout.

How big a factor can the youth pot vote be? The best guess seems to be increasing voter turnout by about 5 or 6 percent. In tight races, that can be decisive.

Exit polls taken during 2008’s and 2012’s presidential elections, found the youth vote—age 18 to 29—increased in the three states with marijuana votes in 2012. In Washington, it went from 10 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 22 percent (equal to 371,450 voters). But there also was a marriage equality question on Washington’s fall 2012 ballot, which makes the pot effect harder to track.

In Colorado, voter turnout among 18-to-29 year-olds went from 14 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2012, when it legalized marijuana. In that election, 2.5 million people voted, with under-30 vote comprising 500,000 voters. In Oregon, it went from 12 percent of all voters in 2008 to 17 percent in 2012. But that increase in turnout wasn’t enough to pass a measure creating a state commission to regulate marijuana cultivation and sale. Nearly 300,000 people under age 30 voted, but it lost by 112,533 votes.

This year, there are several efforts underway in Oregon to put a legalization measure on the fall ballot. These seek a rematch of a 2012 vote where it lost by about 110,000 voters. The success of legalization measures in neighboring Washington and Colorado, coupled with increased state tax revenues, is thought to be newly persuasive.

The 2012 electoral results show that marijuana can be a powerful vote motivator—just as state tax revenues from legal marijuana can be significant, as Colorado has learned. But that doesn’t mean that the political stars are aligning in 2014 in such as way that the marijanua youth vote will be a cure for the Democrats’ voter turnout challenges.

The fine print of the George Washington University poll backs up that conclusion, said longtime pollster John Zogby.

“The context is important,” he said, when asked how he would analyze the GWU poll that prompted national headlines last week. “If they (young people who said they were more likely to turn out if pot's on the ballot) were intending to vote anyway, it’s meaningless,” he said. “What other questions surrounded it (on the poll)? That sets the table for a certain mood and response.”

Celinda Lake’s polling firm did not reply to requests for comments on Monday. But USA Today’s buzz about her poll, which “reveals that nearly four in 10 respondents say they would be ‘much more likely’ to vote if marijuana legalization issues were on the ballot” and “an additional 30 percent say such ballot measures woud make them ‘somewhat’ more likely,” is a tiny part of a much larger poll.

That poll had nearly 170 questions; only five concerned marijuana. Its very first question found that 87.5 percent of the 1,004 people polled said they were “extremely” or “very” likely to vote this year—which means it is already a motivated voter group. The pot questions were about 90th in the order, after going through 2016 presidential candidates, Obama’s performance, every other mainstream issue and perceptions of American’s attitudes toward government and their own well-being.

The pro-pot responses show that the issue has “intensity,” Zogby said, which means that it matters to people, especially to younger voters. That will not change going forward, but given the few places pot questions are on 2014 ballots, it’s not likely to cure the Democrats’ substantial voter turnout challenges this year.

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