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Marijuana legalization and LGBT-rights losses don’t spell doom for Michigan supporters

 There’s been lots of debate over the past few days about the political wisdom of going ahead in Michigan with a couple of ballot campaigns after similar efforts suffered big defeats last week in Houston and Ohio.

OH to MI? Apples to oranges

Let’s begin in our neighboring state where The Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative was trounced last Tuesday. That loss (64.1 percent to 35.9 percent) quickly got many political watchers wondering what the consequences would be on possible marijuana initiatives here in Michigan.

Our analysis: it’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison.

Although Ohio and Michigan have their similarities (both are Midwestern swing states) there are some critical differences.

First, Michigan is ‘bluer’ than Ohio (the state has gone for the Democratic presidential nominee in the past six cycles) and 2016, when one or two marijuana ballot questions could come to the Michigan ballot, it will be a presidential election year. More Democrats (Ds support marijuana legalization more than Rs nationally) turn out to vote in Michigan during presidential years.

Also, Ohio voters had no practical experience with marijuana, whereas Michigan is already a medical marijuana state. And, more and more Michigan voters are going to the polls to decriminalize the drug within their cities.

Finally, both of the initiatives that Michiganders could see in 2016 are simpler than the Ohio amendment (which would have actually written a marijuana monopoly into that state’s constitution).

Our take: The pro-legalization efforts in Michigan will likely succeed or fail based more on their internal organization efforts and finances than any of the issues we’ve listed from Ohio.


The fallout from the human rights ordinance in Houston however, is more complicated. The loss (60.9 percent to 39 percent) will offer tangible lessons for the backers of adding “gender,” “gender identity,” and “sexual orientation” to the equal protection clause of the Michigan constitution.

Against the wishes of some of the LGBT establishment in Michigan, Fair Michigan is trying to add the aforementioned language via ballot question next November.

We expect the group to submit their petition language to the state soon, at least by the end of the year.

If the election were held today, polling suggests the issue should be a winner with voters in Michigan.

But the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) started with wide support among voters too (and got a nod from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton). Support for the ordinance tanked however, largely because of the counter campaign’s extremely effective “bathroom predator” ads.

Now, we should point out, there is no evidence that anything like that has occurred in communities where LGBT rights are protected. But the message taps into a visceral reaction among voters (particularly when children are involved).

Meantime, there are, of course demographic differences between Houston and Michigan that could make a difference.  Houston is a southern city, more conservative, more evangelical overall than Michigan. But, Houston has elected an openly gay mayor, Annise Parker.

The takeaway

If Fair Michigan is going to succeed, it’s going to have to get in front of the “bathroom predator” messaging. And, to do that, they will have to start very soon.

Petition drives and ballot campaigns succeed or fail based on how they tap into voters’ beliefs, fears, and aspirations.

It might seem paradoxical, but the professionals know the throes of a political campaign is not the time to “educate” voters.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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