Is Pot Legalization the Gay Marriage of 2012?

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Every election cycle has a social "wedge" issue that divides the electorate into two camps, driving turnout among both liberals and conservatives motivated by what they feel is their moral duty to vote. In past elections, that issue has been gay marriage. State-level ballot initiatives galvanized activists and interest groups on both sides of the issue, increasing voter participation. Now the Wall Street Journal's Peter Wallsten says the next big wedge issue could be, believe it or not, marijuana legalization.

Democratic strategists liken the marijuana effort to the 2004 ballot drives to ban gay marriage in Ohio and 10 other states. Whether those measures helped then-President George W. Bush win that year remains a point of debate, as turnout was high even in states without the issue on the ballot. But many conservatives say the measure drove thousands to the polls in Ohio, the election's central battleground, where Mr. Bush won by just two percentage points, or about 118,000 votes.

Now, some Democratic strategists say marijuana legalization could do the same for their party.

California, Nevada, and Colorado are all planning ballot initiatives on marijuana legalization, which Democratic activists say is boosting voter interest in those states, which all feature hotly contested elections. Getting a few more likely-Democratic voters motivated to show up on election day, those activists say, could make the difference for, say, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is up for reelection in Nevada. The key is that pot legalization measures appeal to Democrats who are otherwise--shocker--unlikely to vote. Wallsten explains:

Democratic pollster Andrew Myers found in a December 2009 survey in Colorado that 45% of Obama "surge voters"—people voting for the first time in 2008—said they would be more interested in turning out again if marijuana legalization were on the ballot. "If you are 18 to 29, it's far and away the most compelling reason to go out and vote," Mr. Myers said.

Of course, this would be a potentially risky strategy for Democrats to push nationwide. As Wallsten notes, "Few political candidates support marijuana legalization." But how can the Democrats call for putting pot legalization on the ballot if they don't actually want to legalize it? It's a tough question, but no one said elections were easy.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.