And Monsanto and other food-company allies raised $36 million to successfully block measures last year to label genetically modified foods in Colorado and Oregon, while pro-labeling groups fueled by money from natural foods businesses raised $7.5 million in the two states.
Ballot measures were the darling of early 20th century progressives, who saw them as a way to circumnavigate corrupt legislatures. South Dakota became the first state to add initiatives and referenda to its constitution in 1898, borrowing from the ideas behind robust ballot measure politicking in Switzerland. By 1918, 24 states and many more cities had adopted ballot measures, according to the University of Southern California’s Initiative and Referendum Institute.
But the provisions played a minor role in American political life until 1978 when Proposition 13, California’s anti-tax initiative, heralded the “taxpayer revolt” and new popularity for ballot measures. Now, measures promoted with expensive TV ad campaigns often bankrolled by wealthy interests or activist groups are a way of life in California, where the ballot measure is most popular, followed closely by several other western states, such as Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Ohio typically sees one or two statewide measures per year.
Moneyed interests don’t always win ballot measure fights, of course. In 2010, voters rejected California’s Proposition 16 that would have made it harder for municipalities to create their own power companies, despite $46 million spent by Pacific Gas & Electric in support, and less than $100,000 spent by opponents. But if big business is going to win, it needs help to create the network that a true grassroots movement would have at the ready. That’s where the pros come in.
‘Not a process for amateurs’
At Responsible Ohio’s headquarters in James’ Victorian home, July 1 looms. That’s the day the campaign must turn in its signatures to the secretary of state — at least 305,591 to get the measure on the ballot. The team has already surpassed that number, but James is hoping to obtain 800,000 signatures and register thousands of new voters — then remind them all to go to the polls in November.
To do this, James has assembled a cadre of professionals. The prospectus for potential Responsible Ohio investors outlines a preliminary $20 million budget for the campaign: $5.6 million for signature gathering, canvassing and operations, paid to James’ firm; $702,000 for lawyers and bookkeepers; $278,000 for polling; $350,000 for public relations; $1.5 million for data analysis by veterans of Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns; $4 million for direct mail and a vote-by-mail program; $7.1 million for TV and radio advertising; and $440,000 for lobbying.
In Ohio, this is what it takes to run a ballot measure campaign: more than 500 people working full-time, and election pros running the whole show.
“This is a business,” James said. “What we’re doing in changing the constitution to legalize marijuana will lead to more than 10,000 people working in the state, billions of dollars being generated in new revenue. That money is also going to flow into local communities. But no one creates an industry of that magnitude without being paid for it.”
James has worked on eight state and local ballot measures in Ohio. He got his taste for politics as a kid going to union meetings with his mother, a teacher. Starting in high school, he volunteered or worked on about a dozen candidate campaigns, he said, and later took jobs in the Ohio statehouse and as a lobbyist for the late entertainer and casino mogul Merv Griffin. He focuses now on ballot measures and said he works 80 hours a week on Responsible Ohio’s campaign.
Many other politicos also work exclusively on ballot measures for hefty price tags. Barry Fadem, a California-based attorney, has spent his three-decade career writing ballot measure language. His clients typically need to spend $100,000 even before the measure is filed with the state, he said, just to conduct opinion polls, hire consultants to start organizing the campaign and pay him to craft the legalese.
“The initiative process is just not a process for amateurs,” Fadem said. “It’s really not. Because it’s so hard to win.”
Some industry members claim only to work for causes they care about, but most combine work that supports their political principles with work that lines their pocketbooks, taking on gambling, land-use or other types of measures that pay well.
But industry members said they aren’t getting rich. Michael Arno leads a major signature gathering company, Arno Petition Consultants, that has been paid more than $9.5 million since 2010, according to data from the Lucy Burns Institute and state records.
“If I had a nickel for every nickel people thought I’d had, I’d be retired by now,” he said. “We go through long stretches we don’t have any work.”
With clipboards and pens in hand, Donnie Dawson stood on the sidewalk outside the Franklin County Government Center on a recent afternoon, calling to people shuffling into the revolving doors to pay speeding tickets and lawyers leaving to catch a smoke break.
“Legalize marijuana, bro?” he called out to a man in bright red pants.
“I don’t smoke,” the man said as he kept walking. “I sell.”
The man had a point: His current illegal business would be doomed under Responsible Ohio’s initiative, because only the 10 for-profit companies that are also funding the campaign would be allowed to grow and sell pot wholesale, though others could set up retail shops.
But voters may not know that from listening to Dawson try to collect their signatures. “Basically the 10 companies are for the nonprofit medical marijuana, for research for the medical marijuana,” said Dawson when asked what he tells potential signers curious about the alleged monopoly. “They’re there to do the research and invent different strands of weed to help.”
That leaves out a piece of the picture. Though it’s true the 10 wholesalers would supply nonprofit medical dispensaries, the wholesalers are presently organized as for-profit LLCs and would also supply for-profit retailers. “While maybe not artful, it is accurate,” James said of Dawson’s words.
A stream of Ohioans signed Dawson’s petition. None of them read the entire 24-page measure; many of them didn’t seem bothered by the wealthy investors behind it.
“It goes hand in hand. It’s kind of like Philip Morris and cigarette companies,” said 36-year-old warehouse employee Jorrel Carse, who also said he didn’t know much about the petition when he signed it. “It’s all just a part of business.”
Josh Sword, a construction worker and self-described “street pharmacist,” said he has grown marijuana in the past and would grow it again if Responsible Ohio’s measure passed.
Ohio’s potential marijuana market even inspired a copycat measure. But the Better for Ohio group seeks to authorize 40 growth facilities instead of just 10. The right to operate those sites would go to owners of certain $100 bills, with their serial numbers listed in the ballot measure. Better for Ohio said it would assign ownership of the bills at a later date.
The backers of the measure aren’t joking — they hired Arno’s California-based firm to gather signatures but will be aiming for the 2016 ballot after running out of money to pay Arno to qualify this year.
Massive signature drives, though fraught with claims of fraud and deception over the years, remain the hallmark of the initiative process. Though some measures can still rely on volunteers for the labor-intensive job, at least $20 million was paid to 21 firms gathering signatures for the 2014 ballot, according to data from the Lucy Burns Institute and state records.
But Dawson, a professional signature gatherer, isn’t making millions. The 42-year-old father of five did not say how much he makes, but James said signature gatherers are paid a base rate of $9.50 per hour, with the chance to earn more if they bring in many valid signatures.
Responsible Ohio is attracting a motley crew of opponents, from anti-drug activists to pro-pot voters hoping to get other, less restrictive versions of marijuana legalization on the ballot.
Mary Smith, a marijuana activist and the former owner of what she called a “run-of-the-mill hippie department store” in Toledo, said she isn’t backing it because she doubts Responsible Ohio’s wealthy investors have genuine empathy for medical marijuana patients.
“This is completely about greed,” she said.
But so far opponents are without a broad coalition and have yet to muster significant funding to go up against the $20 million campaign from Responsible Ohio. Anti-drug activist Seidel said she thinks some sort of opposition group will form but doesn’t know where the money will come from.
Vermilion resident Aaron Weaver and about 20 other pro-pot critics of Responsible Ohio are trying to put up a fight. In April, they formed a new nonprofit, Citizens Against Responsible Ohio.
So far the group exists as a website, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. And they are paying out of their own pockets to promote Facebook posts criticizing the measure. Encouraged solely by a tweet from comedian Drew Carey, an Ohio native who voiced skepticism about Responsible Ohio’s plan, Weaver drafted a letter asking him for money. “With your assistance, we can turn the tide and put a stop to these well-polished thugs in their tracks,” Weaver’s letter reads.
In an initiative process intended to be the voice of the people, the people are struggling to find the money to get their voices heard, while moneyed interests can afford to pay top dollar for the ballot professionals. It’s an irony not lost on the professionals themselves.
“To be quite honest, it’s a lucrative business, but there are certainly questions we all have about the efficiency, and what’s good for democracy and what’s not,” said Paul Maslin, a pollster who has worked on initiatives for 20 years. “Because let’s face it: Sometimes ballot measures can be the purview of special interest groups that may not be linked up with the public interest.”
Others are unmoved, even upon hearing that Ian James plans to pay his own firm $5.6 million to promote the idea he created.
“It’s America,” said David Bruno, an Akron-based consultant who has helped James attract investors. “Good for him. And for the people that want to criticize that, it’s a shame they didn’t try to do it first.”
But for Weaver, Responsible Ohio would crush his version of the American dream: opening a marijuana farm that would double as his business and a retirement plan for his parents if legalization ever came to Ohio.
“It’s an absolutely unfair fight,” the 28-year-old administrative assistant said. “It’s a perversion of our process in the state of Ohio and I think any state, really. I mean putting your business plan into the constitution of a state? That’s unheard of. That’s ridiculous.”
Data reporter Ben Wieder contributed to this story.
This story was co-published with TIME.