Hidden Voter Preference Could Put Pot Initiative Over the Top in California Amid Mind-Boggling Racial Arrest Disparities

Pot reformers suggest that citizens are unwilling to tell pollsters their true voter preferences on Prop 19.

Political momentum and international attention is building around California's Proposition 19. On Election Day, Nov. 2, voters could very well make the Golden State the first in the country to legalize recreational possession of pot.

The pot battle, which gives progressives, liberals and libertarians something strongly affirmative to vote for, is in stark contrast to most of the media coverage this election year. The corporate media continues to be obsessed with the Tea Party's attacks on government and everything Obama, and its special project of sexualizing "grizzly mama" candidates.

While many polls have consistently shown that a majority of voters are favorably inclined toward Prop 19, some recent polls have shown some erosion in support. But in an unusual development, pot reformers are strongly suggesting a phenomenon they call the "reverse Bradley effect" -- voters, perhaps because of lingering judgment around drug use, are unwilling to express their true voter preferences to live pollsters, but will in fact vote for legal pot when they get in the voting booth.

Backing this theory up, the Yes on 19 campaign released an internal poll on Friday showing that likely voters support the initiative to control and tax marijuana by a margin of 56-41 when presented with an automated questionnaire.

"As the polling shows, there still seems to be somewhat of a social stigma attached to marijuana and the politics surrounding it," said Dan Newman, a political strategist working with the Yes on 19 campaign. "We're confident that when Californians find themselves in the privacy of voting booths on Nov. 2, they will vote to end decades of failed and harmful marijuana policies. Very few people think the current policy is working."

New York Times analyst Nate Silver has also speculated about the potential reverse Bradley effect, indicating that voters may be uncomfortable telling strangers how they would vote on controversial policies.

The Bradley effect is named for Tom Bradley, an African American who ran for governor of California in 1982. The polls leading up to the election gave Bradley a clear lead, but he narrowly lost on election night, to the Republican candidate George Deukmejian, much to everyone's surprise. The same thing happened to African American gubernatorial candidate Doug Wilder in Virginia in 1989. The Bradley effect, of course, is directly related to race; presumably people tell pollsters they are voting for the black candidate, but in the privacy of the voting booth they vote for the white guy. Some feared this might happen when Barack Obama ran against John McCain, but there is little evidence that it did.

As the site Wisegeek explains, "One of the primary explanations for the Bradley Effect is racial. Pollsters have suggested that voters may not want to admit to planning to vote against a black candidate, because they fear being perceived as racist, especially when the pollster is black. Polling organizations have also suggested that the Bradley Effect could be caused by undecided voters, many of whom lean in a conservative direction on election night."

Whether the phenomenon of polling and voter booth discrepancy will work to Prop 19's advantage is any one's guess. But the large numbers of pot users in California and the negative impact of anti-drug policies, including huge racial discrepancies in arrests, may make this a reason to mobilize the minority communities in California. A new report was released from the Drug Policy Alliance and the California Conference of the NAACP on October 22, on the targeting of African Americans for low-level marijuana possession in California. The report reveals that an astonishing  850,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana have been made in California over the past 20 years. The people arrested were disproportionately African Americans and Latinos, mostly young men, and that from 2006 through 2008, "police in 25 of California's major cities have arrested blacks for low-level marijuana possession at four, five, six, seven and even twelve times the rate of whites."

New York Times columnist Charles Blow explains these shocking statistics are the product of a "callous political calculus."

"It’s an easy and relatively cheap way for them to buy a tough-on-crime badge while simultaneously pleasing police unions," Blow writes. "The fact that they are ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of black and Hispanic men and, by extension, the communities they belong to barely seems to register."

The Yes on 19 campaign has just launched its first ad encouraging voters to say yes to legalization. Former San Jose Chief of Police Joe McNamara explains how the war on marijuana has completely failed. By taxing and controlling cannabis, he says, we'll generate billions of dollars for our local communities, cut down on violent crime, and put violent cartels out of business. Watch the ad here:

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
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