May 23, 2006

Democrats to use minimum wage as election weapon

By Alan Elsner

TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - Democrats in Arizona and across
the nation believe they have a secret weapon in November
mid-term elections: putting minimum wage increases on state
ballots to boost turnout among supporters.

In doing so, Democrats are taking a page from their
opponents' play book. Republicans have used ballot propositions
for years as a way to galvanize their political base, most
notably in 2004 with referendums to ban same sex marriage.

"The idea is to get more of our voters to the polls. The
other side has done this so well for so long - on terms limits,
property tax reductions and gay marriage," said Oliver Griswold
of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a Washington group
helping Democrats use state referendums as a strategic weapon
in elections.

Democrats are collecting signatures to put the minimum wage
issue on the ballot in six states - Ohio, Missouri, Montana,
Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. The federal minimum wage has been
stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997 and the Republican-controlled
Congress has beaten back many attempts to raise it.

In Arizona, the effort to raise it to $6.75 an hour is
being backed by a coalition that includes organized labor, the
Democratic Party and even some religious groups who are framing
the issue in moral terms. Organizers have to collect 122,000
signatures by mid-July to ensure the issue will appear on the
ballot and are confident they will succeed.

"In every poll we've seen, this issue is hugely popular
among Democrats but also across party lines and in all ethnic
groups. It will be a huge motivator to get Democrats to the
polls in November and we intend to use it as a defining issue,"
said Rebekah Friend, president of the state AFL-CIO labor
federation who leads the initiative in Arizona.


Arizona has two U.S. House of Representatives races where
Republicans could face a strong challenge. Democratic Gov.
Janet Napolitano, who is up for re-election, has already
endorsed raising the minimum wage.

The biggest Democratic target could be Republican Sen. Jon
Kyl, who is facing Jim Pederson, a wealthy property developer.
Until recently, Kyl had been seen by most independent experts
as fairly safe for re-election, but a recent poll put his
advantage at only 7 percentage points, and some analysts now
think he could be vulnerable. Democrats need to capture six
Senate seats and 15 House seats to regain control of Congress.

"The minimum wage is going to be a big issue for us because
it's part of what we want voters to know about our opponent --
that he's voted in Congress time and again against raising it,"
said Pederson spokesman Kevin Griffis. "It's going to be a
galvanizing force in the election. It plays into the contrast
between the two candidates."

A spokesman for Kyl said the senator had not yet taken a
position on the issue because it was not yet officially on the

Arizona's Chamber of Commerce and organizations
representing small businesses oppose the ballot, saying it will
deter employers from hiring new workers, but concede it will be
tough to defeat.

"If it's going to be defeated, it will be very expensive.
It will take a lot of voter education," said Farrell Quinn of
the state Chamber of Commerce. "The question is, how much money
can be put into it and how much of an effort can be mounted?"

Republicans are countering the Democratic push on the
minimum wage in several states, including Arizona, by once
again trying to put anti-same sex marriage propositions on the
ballot. But there is some evidence that issue is losing some of
its fervor.

State referendums do raise voter participation, especially
in mid-term elections when turnout is usually far lower than in
presidential elections, said University of Florida political
scientist Daniel Smith, who has studied the issue.

Smith said his research of mid-term elections from 1982 to
2002 showed that each ballot initiative increased turnout by an
average of 2 percentage points.

"Initiatives also have an agenda-setting effect and get
voters thinking about the candidates through the prism of this
one issue. It can work both to mobilize people and to prime
people, to drive voters and to drive wedges," Smith said.