With Proposition 19, the initiative to legalize and regulate marijuana, on the California ballot, the big political question is: can the initiative be a driver of voter turnout ? This is not only important for the success or failure of the ballot measure, but could potentially affect both the highly contested California governor and Senate races. There is evidence from past elections that marijuana reform can be what gets voters to the polls.

While in most elections the presidential race or a highly contested gubernatorial contest is the thing on the ballot that gets the most total votes, that is not always the case. In Oregon, during the 1998 general election, more total votes were cast for State Measure 67, allowing the use of medical marijuana, than were cast in the governor, senate, any of the congressional races, or any other ballot measure.

Race Total votes
State Measure 67 1,119,453
Senate 1,117,747
Governor 1,113,098
State Measure 64 1,113,026
State Measure 57 1,108,935
State Measure 66 1,104,285
State Measure 59 1,101,709
State Measure 60 1,091,225
Congress 1,090,357
State Measure 56 1,087,284
State Measure 58 1,083,916
State Measure 62 1,068,560
State Measure 54 1,044,709
State Measure 55 1,035,715
State Measure 63 1,023,826
State Measure 65 1,017,759

As you can see, the medical marijuana initiative got more total votes than anything else. This shows that there was a universe of voters that were driven to show up to vote for the medical marijuana measure that didn’t even bother to vote on any other big race or measure. One can likely conclude from this that medical marijuana was a turnout driver in this year. While the number of Measure 67-only voters was small, it is important to remember that the bulk of people driven to vote byMeasure 67 likely also decided to vote for other things while at the polls.

This effect was probably only noticeable in this election because neither the gubernatorial nor senate race was very competitive that year. Traditionally, marijuana law reform ballot measures see a small level of drop off from the top-ticket races, but much less than most other ballot measures.

In California this year, I suspect the very competitive senate and governor’s races will probably get just slightly more total votes cast in them than on Prop 19, but I think the 1998 Oregon general election is strong proof that a marijuana reform ballot measure can be a motivator for some people to go out and vote.