Last night, pro-lifers received some disappointing news when a ballot proposal that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks in Albuquerque was rejected by the voters by a 55–45 margin. There are relatively few clinics that perform late-term abortions nationally, but one of them is located in Albuquerque. Since 20-week abortion bans have polled well nationally, local pro-life activists saw this municipal ballot proposal as a creative way to circumvent the New Mexico state legislature, which historically has been unreceptive to pro-life laws.
Pro-lifers should not despair about Tuesday’s loss, for a couple reasons. First, there’s a substantial body of political-science research showing that money plays a big role in determining which side prevails in ballot-proposition campaigns. This advantage is magnified whenever the status quo position enjoys a substantial financial advantage. That was the certainly the case during this campaign: Some estimates had pro-lifers being outspent by a 4-1 margin.
Second, pro-lifers have had little success changing public policy through direct democracy — even for incremental pro-life laws which poll well. For instance, in the late 1990s, attempts to use the citizen initiative to enact partial-birth-abortion bans in Maine, Colorado, and Washington were all unsuccessful. Between 1978 and 1988, only two out of seven ballot questions to limit public funding for abortion met with success. Efforts to enact a parental-notice law in California in 2006 and 2008 both failed by narrow margins. That said, of late, pro-lifers have enjoyed a little more success: Efforts to enact parental-involvement laws succeeded in both Alaska in 2010 and Montana in 2012. But these are red states where pro-life position enjoys far greater public support than it does in Albuquerque.
Finally, history also shows us that conservatives sometimes need to place questions on the ballot multiple times before achieving victory. Howard Jarvis placed a number of property-tax limits on the California ballot before succeeding with Proposition 13 in 1978. Fiscal limits authored by Douglas Bruce failed in Colorado in both 1988 and 1990, but then he succeeded with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) in 1992. A pro-life initiative to limit public funding for abortion in Arkansas failed in 1986, but a subsequent initiative succeeded in 1988. Indeed, the battle in Albuquerque has likely only just begun.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan – Dearborn and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.