Voters face barrage of ads as they decide four major ballot questions

  • The money spent on at least two referendum campaigns will likely be in the millions.
The money spent on at least two referendum campaigns will likely…
August 18, 2012|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland enters uncharted political territory this fall as voters for the first time in decades face four major ballot questions. An onslaught of costly advertising is likely as competing interests from all over the country try to sway the state's electorate.

Ballot questions aren't subject to fundraising limits, so the money spent on at least two of the campaigns — on laws legalizing same-sex marriage and expanding gambling in the state — will likely be in the millions.

Two other questions, on access to higher education for some illegal immigrants and the fairness of the new congressional map, ignite deep passions likely to inspire old fashioned face-to-face politicking.

"We haven't seen anything like it in modern history," said Donald F. Norris, who chairs the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It is going to be a political junkie's absolute dream."

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, quipped that Maryland "is going to be a little bit like California," where statewide referendums are commonplace.

"These ballot issues will make it a very important election year in the state," he said.

Heavily Democratic Maryland is expected to be a safe place for President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, so the top-of-the ticket races won't cause much suspense.

But after two decades without a law petitioned to the ballot, voters will decide whether to uphold three controversial ones. These were petitioned to referendum by conservative advocates who think they should be overturned.

The legislature deliberately added a fourth, asking voters to decide whether Maryland should allow more gambling.

Laws on the ballot are suspended until voters decide. They include:

•A law passed this year allowing same-sex couples to marry in Maryland.

•A law passed last year, called the Dream Act, that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities as long as they've graduated from state high schools and their parents have filed state taxes.

•The redrawn map of the state's eight congressional districts, which among other changes adds many Democratic voters to the previously Republican Western Maryland district.

•The measure passed by the legislature last week that would allow a sixth casino in Maryland, to be located in Prince George's County, and table games at all six.

Already one group has formed that seeks to reject all four of the ballot measures — under the banner "Repeal O'Malley's Laws."

"You are talking about educating millions of voters on four issues," said Tony Campbell, a former Baltimore County Republican Party official who founded the group. "Each issue could get lost in the mix. It is a way of tying it all together."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who supports all four laws, plans to devote most of his energy to supporting same-sex marriage and the immigration measure, said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor.

The Maryland Democratic Party is taking the lead defending the congressional map. Local leaders and casino interests are expected to push the gambling expansion measure, an issue that O'Malley has said he is "sick" of dealing with.

The gambling expansion question could attract the most money, experts say, especially if some of the state's current casino owners decide they should fight it to protect their own markets. (Officials with Penn National Gaming and the Cordish Cos., who both have casinos in Maryland, declined to say whether they will actively work against the measure.)

In Ohio, $150 million was spent over the course of three elections with casino questions on the ballot, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which tracks funding on ballot initiatives.

These companies don't need to raise money from the public. They just dip into corporate profits.

Already in Maryland, gambling interests spent more than $1 million on advertising in the eight weeks leading up to last week's General Assembly session and are expected to continue to pour money into their campaign.

Next would be same-sex marriage, if patterns from other states hold. Advocates on both sides of the law have already attracted national money and attention.

In Maine, more than $10 million was spent for and against a 2009 ballot measure on same-sex marriage, according National Institute on Money in State Politics. Proposition 8, in California, drew $106 million.

In Maryland, both sides of the same-sex marriage debate have been sending out emails requesting money from potential supporters.

Sometimes the pitches have been tied to national events — when President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, a flurry of fundraising requests on both sides followed. Other times, they've been part of a campaign-driven event, like the release of a favorable poll or the rollout of a new high-profile supporter.

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