Sometimes a ballot issue isn’t really about the issue

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The outcome of one of the nation’s most critical Senate races could come down to an unrelated question: how North Dakota residents feel about blocking noncitizens from voting — even though such voting is already illegal.

Conservatives have placed the issue on the November ballot and are promoting it heavily, hoping to bring out a flood of conservative voters who, at the same time, would boost Republican Kevin Cramer to victory in his close Senate race with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp .

The hardball tactic is also on display this cycle in California, where Republicans hope a proposal to repeal a gasoline tax increase attracts the kind of voter who will help them hang on to some House seats. In other states, marijuana legalization measures could gin up turnout for Democratic candidates even if the measures themselves fizzle.

“Initiatives are a good thing overall,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for the government watchdog group Common Cause. “But nefarious tactics are sometimes used by both parties to try and hijack the process … to get a certain outcome in certain elections.”

The use of citizen initiatives, allowed in two dozen states, has been rising along with dissatisfaction with gridlocked government. Ballotpedia, an organization that analyzes electoral data, counted 75 such measures in 2016, the most in nearly 40 years. This year Ballotpedia counted 69.

Scherb said partisan use of the measures is growing. It’s a tactic that can be especially potent in midterm elections, where turnout is smaller — typically 40 percent, compared with 60 percent in a general election nationally.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin opted to schedule a medical marijuana measure for the primary ballot in June — a move widely seen as making sure it didn’t wind up on the general election ballot in November. The measure triggered a spike in progressive turnout.

Democrats, too, see opportunities to get their voters to the polls with left-leaning measures . In Michigan, where voters will consider legalizing marijuana, Democrats endorsed the measure at their summer convention. Randy Richardville, a former state Senate majority leader leading an opposition group, said there was “no question” Democrats see marijuana as a liberal turnout booster.

Brandon Dillon, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, conceded as much.

“When politics and policy come together it’s a beautiful thing, and we are hoping this is one of those occasions,” he said.

Marijuana is on the ballot in North Dakota this year, too, and so is a measure that would make sweeping government ethics changes that Democrats have pursued for years. The chief sponsors of both measures say they stem from a desire to change law, not shape the electorate.