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Money Doesn't Always Buy Victory In Ballot Issues

Less than 30 percent of Ohio registered voters cast ballots in the November election, which featured the most expensive ballot issue in Ohio history. While money was a factor in Issue 2’s defeat, there have been other times when the side with the most money failed to winthe most votes.  Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler explains.

There were a lot of numbers thrown around about Issue 2, the Drug Price Relief Act. For instance, $400 million – the amount that supporters said it would save taxpayers a year. And nearly 8 in 10 – the number of voters who cast ballots against Issue 2. But one set of figures really stood out: $20 million versus $75 million.

“The yes campaign may have spent $20 million bucks. Money played a role but it wasn’t the only thing.” – Curt Steiner

“The drug companies spent $75 million to convince people to vote against their own best interests.” – Dennis Willard

Those aren’t even the final figures – they won’t be known till mid-December – but already Issue 2 is the most expensive ballot campaign in Ohio history. But there has been big money in other ballot campaigns, and the side that spent the most didn’t always win. For instance, the issue that would have legalized medical and recreational marijuana and set up 10 growing sites two years ago. The “vote yes” group spent more than $20 million. The “vote no” groups spent just over $2 million. Steiner also led the “no” side, which got nearly two thirds of the vote. “Never underestimate the wisdom of Ohio’s voters. They saw through the smokescreen of slick ads,” Steiner said then.

In 2008, there were five issues on the ballot, including one to overturn a state law cracking down on payday lenders. The industry spent nearly $21 million, but voters supported the crackdown by almost 2-1. Homelessness activist Bill Faith was among those who worked against the payday lenders – on a shoestring budget of just over a half a million dollars. “We printed a lot of fliers. We spread the word the old-fashioned way through grassroots networks all over the state,” Faith said in 2008.

In 2006, there were four issues on the ballot – including the smoking ban law and a constitutional amendment that would have created a smoking ban with some exceptions. That amendment was backed by the tobacco industry, which raised two and a half times what the health groups did to both promote their ban and defeat the amendment. The amendment lost, and the smoking ban won. Tracy Sabetta was part of that coalition of health organizations. “We’re so pleased that voters saw through the smokescreen put up by the tobacco industry and voted no on 4 and yes on 5,” Sabetta said after the election night win.

And of course there were the casino issues. Supporters of those amendments routinely spent millions each time, and each time, the issues failed by double digits. One caveat, though – in 2008, the money was really big, because not only did the backers of the proposed casino in Wilmington spend more than $21 million on the failed issue, but the casino company Penn National spent more than $38 million to defeat it. Penn National was one of the two casinos involved when casino gambling was finally approved in 2009. It won by just 6 points, and was the most expensive ballot campaign in state history till this year.

Longtime journalist and former Democratic state lawmaker Mike Curtin wrote the Ohio Politics Almanac, which includes details about the history of ballot issues in Ohio. Curtin says in his nearly 40 years of newspaper work and state government involvement, he’d never had more people approach asking for his opinion on an issue than they did on Issue 2 this year. And all the money being spent may have fueled that. “The sky’s the limit right now in public campaigns as to how much can be spent. I don’t think we’re going to get that horse back in the barn,” Curtin said.

Rob Walgate is with the conservative Ohio Roundtable, which campaigned successfully for term limits in 1992 and opposed every casino amendment. He agrees that big money can be hard to campaign against, but he says it can be done. “The United States spent more money on Halloween in 2016 than they did every Congressional race, US Senate race and the presidential election,” Walgate said. “So when you compare it to the grand scheme of things, I think you can look at it and say, well, the people are still making those decisions.”

The big money with Issue 2 bought an onslaught of ads starting months before the election, some featuring directly conflicting information. And one thing is common in both campaigns – some of that information was wrong, according to Politifact, which gave both campaigns a “mostly false” rating for one of their ads.  

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