The Center for Public Integrity collected campaign finance records filed by statewide ballot measure groups that ran ads on local broadcast, national broadcast and national cable television networks in 2014. The Center then analyzed the donations behind the groups to create the list of the top 50 contributors to ballot measure fights around the country. [More details on the methodology].
Together, those 50 mega-donors gave $266 million, nearly two-thirds of the $424 million contributed to those ballot measure campaigns in 2014.
That means that a few powerful entities dominated debates nationwide over ballot initiatives, which were originally intended to give citizens a stronger voice in government.
Most of the top donors gave to more than one ballot fight — and almost half of them helped fund battles in multiple states. A few were also generous in other 2014 elections, as well. Five of the top 50 ballot measure contributors were also among the top 50 donors to races for state-level candidates.
Some of the money paid for mailers and robo-calls, but much of it went to TV ad blitzes. In 2014, more than $190 million was spent on ballot measure ads alone.
Multinational oil companies BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. successfully beat back a measure in Alaska that would have repealed tax breaks for the oil companies. After giving more than $3.5 million each to the “no” side, they won with nearly 53 percent of the vote.
The American Beverage Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., that represents beverage producers, gave more than $8.2 million to fight a Massachusetts measure that would have expanded the deposit that customers must pay when buying bottled drinks. It, too, got what it wanted when 71 percent of voters rejected the new deposit proposal.
But 2014 also proved that money only goes so far, said John Matsusaka, a professor and executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
“Spending matters. If you spend money, you are going to get some votes,” he said. But “if it’s an unpopular measure you can spend as much as you like and it’s not going to pass. It’s not a system where you can just walk in and buy laws.”
Mile High USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Rhode Island-based Twin River Casino company that owns a racetrack and off-track betting parlor in Colorado, gave more than any other ballot measure donor in the U.S. in an unsuccessful effort to expand gaming at its Arapahoe Park racetrack near Aurora, Colorado.
Mile High gave $19.8 million to a “yes” campaign, which worked out to $9.84 per ballot cast in Colorado. Mile High’s corporate clout was countered not by citizens, but by a group of competing casinos in the state that together gave nearly $16.3 million to defeat the measure. Mile High promised that much of the newfound gambling revenue would go to a state education fund: “By permitting limited gaming at Arapahoe Park, 68 will provide millions to our schools each year,” said one backer in an ad. But voters were not swayed: 70 percent of them voted against the amendment.
In another expensive, uphill fight, Wal-Mart gave $3.6 million to an effort to pass a measure in North Dakota that would have let the company open pharmacies in the state, a haven for small, pharmacist-owned drug stores. Wal-Mart also lost, though its opponents raised a fraction of what the big-box retailer gave.
Giving big on defense
Within the top 50 donors, business interests fighting to defeat ballot measures were more successful in 2014 than those whose money was directed at trying to pass initiatives. Companies such as MGM Resorts International and Monsanto gave heavily to fight proposals that would have hurt their profits.
MGM, which is building an $800 million casino in Springfield, Massachusetts, helped pay for TV ads that warned voters the state would lose thousands of jobs if it nixed its gambling law in a November ballot question. “If Question 3 passes, we’ll lose it all — as simple as that,” said a man dressed as a construction worker in one ad. “We’re asking people to vote no on 3 so we can keep the jobs.”
For MGM, the investment of nearly $5.4 million to fight Question 3 paid off — voters rejected the initiative.
That fits with what political experts know about ballot measures: They’re easier to defeat than to pass.
“It’s easier to defend the status quo, often,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has studied ballot measures for two decades. “The onus is on the proponents to articulate why a measure needs to be passed by the people. People know what the status quo is, and you can raise doubts about whether you’re going to be better off under this proposed change.”
Some companies made successful “no” arguments across more than one state. Agricultural giant Monsanto gave $10.7 million to fight ballot questions in Colorado and Oregon that would have required genetically modified foods to be specially labeled. The company is the largest producer of genetically modified seeds in the world.
“We fully support the idea of providing information to consumers to help them make choices about foods as long as the information [on the labels] being provided to consumers is accurate, science based and does not mislead,” said Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord in an email. “What we are not supportive of is a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws.”
Supporters of labeling, many of them natural food companies, raised nearly $1 million in Colorado and nearly $6.5 million in Oregon, but it wasn’t enough. Monsanto and its food-industry allies raised more than $16 million in Colorado and $20 million in Oregon, winning the ballot contests with 65 percent and just over 50 percent of the vote, respectively.
Giving money to ballot measure fights has become the norm for companies seeking to defend their profits, said Justine Sarver, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
“Ballot measures were originally created as a check on corporate influence in state legislatures,” Sarver said. “Today, corporations use the process to pad their bottom line.”
And business groups are continuing to fight for their profits at the polls. For example, plastics companies in California are already gearing up for a referendum battle over the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags.
The companies have already given millions to back a referendum repealing the ban, delaying its implementation and allowing the companies to continue raking in profits until the vote.