Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Most Important Element of Tonight's Win for Marijuana Sentencing Reform

Tonight, a ballot issue here in Wichita, KS, to reduce the penalty for a first-time arrest for the possession of a small amount of marijuana won. Did it win big? Nope, but it did win decisively: 54% to 46% of the total votes cast. And that, frankly, may be the best possible result which we who supported this ballot issue could have hoped for.

Why do I think those result are better for the overall effort to challenge drug-war overreach than a blow-out win? Because this is just the first step. Now, here in Wichita, we will wait to see what our new mayor and the new city council will do as Kansas's Attorney General, Derek Schmidt, decides whether or not to make good on his threat to sue the city to force our government to ignore the results of the election, since it would involve Wichita police treating as an easily disposed-of criminal infraction the possession of a controlled substance which the state lists as a Class A misdemeanor, with heavy fines and a criminal record attached. If an injunction is laid upon the city, our government almost certainly won't fight it, and that will be that.

Except it won't be, because state legislators will be watching. They wouldn't be if the sentencing reform ballot issue had lost. And it's quite possible they also wouldn't be if it had won big--say, a 70%-30% blow-out. In such a case, it would have been very easy for the opponents of the measure to say to folks up in Topeka, "They won solely because they registered for this one issue a bunch of marginal, disaffected folk who can't possibly be counted on to vote normally." But they can't say that in this case, because the turnout in this election--with about 37,000 votes cast out of about 200,000 registered voters, or about 18% of the total--is unfortunately pretty standard for springtime city-wide elections. And moreover, if you look at the votes cast for the sentencing reform ballot and the only other city-wide contest--for mayor--the numbers are almost identical. Clearly, those who worked so hard to bring this reform issue to the voters did not manage a win by somehow flooding the ballot booths with thousands of disengaged, marginal, first-time voters. (If they had, voting totals would have been different, because they wouldn't have voted for mayoral candidates at the same rate, or else if they did the number of write-in ballots--which amounted to only 5% of all votes--for outright supporters of the sentencing reform issue like Jennifer Winn would have been much higher.) No, this ballot issue won a small but clear victory because thousands of standard Wichita voters were persuaded it was the right thing to do. And those are exactly the voters whom at least a few of those state legislators in Topeka will want to have on their side to stay in office.

So tonight, I'm feeling pretty good. My bet is that sentencing reform won't be allowed to happen in Wichita--but the people who will be frustrated by the state's actions in that regard are going to include thousands of ordinary voters in this mostly white, mostly conservative city, and that is the sort of thing that may really lead members of certain committees to wake up to not just a valuable reform in criminal justice, but an electorally beneficial one as well. This is how you build movements, folks. Door-knocking, signature-gathering, and vote after vote after vote.

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