Why Marijuana Won’t Drive Youth Turnout in Midterms

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Pot is popular these days. A recent poll last week found that three out of four Americans support legalizing medical marijuana and more than half think we should get rid of the criminal penalties tied to possession.


So it’s believable that the prospect of marijuana legalization might drive voters — particularly young ones, who support legalization in higher numbers — out to the polls later this year.

Public opinion numbers suggest that. The aforementioned poll, conducted by George Washington University, showed that 69 percent of voters would be more likely to vote if marijuana legalization was on the ticket.

That’s an intriguing idea in a midterm election year. Young people generally don’t show up for midterms, which hurts Democrats and helps Republicans.

One prominent Democratic Party pollster thinks that marijuana initiatives could create an opportunity for Democrats to entice younger people out to vote. Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, spoke to Capitol Hill staffers about the idea in March.

“Marijuana is one of the few issues that really mobilizes progressive voters without any backlash,” Lake said. “People don’t mobilize to turn out against marijuana. They shrug their shoulders, they wish their grandkids didn’t use it, but they don’t vote to beat marijuana.”

But marijuana likely won’t amount to a golden ticket for Democrats. Here’s why:

Legalization campaigns in Oregon and Alaska

Oregon and Alaska will both have ballot initiatives later this year seeking to legalize marijuana. Experts don’t think that will change the outcome in major elections, though.


Larry J. Sabato is and a veteran election observer and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He doesn’t see the marijuana legalization effort making much of a difference in the liberal state of Oregon.

“In Oregon, Democrats are already favored for reelection for governor and senator (John Kitzhaber and Jeff Merkley, respectively),” he told Fusion in an email. “So far those races aren't close enough for the referendum to make a decisive difference.”


In Alaska, there’s another reason marijuana won’t matter. A unique state rule says that votes on ballot initiatives should occur during primary elections.

Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, is in a tight race with Republican challengers. He might have gotten a boost from the marijuana ballot initiative, but the vote will be finished by the time the general election comes around.


Florida and a flashback to California

Medical marijuana will be on the ballot in Florida this year. If the measure passes, Florida will become the biggest state after California to legalize pot for medical use.


Hypothetically, that could benefit Charlie Crist, the former state governor who left the office in 2010 to run, unsuccessfully, for Senate. Crist was once a Republican, but is now running on the Democratic ticket and supports medical marijuana.

Larry Sabato thinks the marijuana initiative could give him a boost.

“In Florida, given the large population of elderly voters, I would think medical marijuana wouldn't be especially age-specific in its support patterns,” he said. “To the extent that it is, Democrat Charlie Crist could benefit in his battle with freshman GOP Gov. Rick Scott.”


But that may be underestimating the impact of the dismal youth turnout that’s expected this year. For some perspective, look at California.

The state voted on marijuana legalization in 2010, another midterm election year. Legalization supporters had a huge funding advantage, raising $4 million and attracting celebrity allies.


Things didn’t go as planned, however.

While more than half of people under the ages 18 to 39 voted for legalization, young voters didn’t come to the polls in large numbers. The initiative failed — marijuana wasn’t enough to convince the kids to vote.


That doesn’t mean the issue can’t give a boost to Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial campaign. Incumbent Gov. Rick Scott (R) opposes the measure to legalize medical marijuana, and polling in the state shows that medical pot has broad support, even in Republican strongholds.

The aftereffects in Colorado

Of course, marijuana is already legal and available for purchase in Colorado, but the good vibes over legalization could carry over into this election season, as well. Both the races for governor and senate are worth watching in that regard, according to Sabato.


“In [Colorado], local observers say that Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is enjoying a kind of ‘pot boost’ in his once-lagging approval ratings,” he wrote. “He's up for reelection in November. Sen. Mark Udall (D) is also up for a second term and could have a tight race. If young people ‘reward’ him too, if might help.”

The takeaway: Marijuana ballot initiatives won’t have a huge impact on elections, but could be meaningful in Florida. Instead, look to 2016.


Here’s some food for thought from Democratic pollster Celinda Lake:

“The groups that most support legalization of marijuana, the rising American electorate — people of color, educated voters, young voters, and unmarried voters — will make a majority of the electorate in 2016,” she said last month. “So in 2016, the majority of the electorate is going to be made up of the people most supportive of marijuana legalization.”


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.