TAMPA — Some Florida Republicans fear, and some Democrats hope, that a November referendum on legalizing medical marijuana in Florida will drive young and liberal voters to the polls, helping Democratic candidates including gubernatorial challenger Charlie Crist.
The initiative, still not certified for the November ballot, is generating charges of political motives from both sides.
Some Republicans call it an expensive ploy by Crist's backers to help him win.
“It is no coincidence that Charlie Crist's law partner and biggest supporter, John Morgan, is financing medical marijuana,” said Gainesville-based GOP consultant Alex Patton. “It's a plan.”
Some Democrats, meanwhile, say Republicans are trying to keep the measure off the ballot because they fear the voters it would draw to the polls.
In a political forum in Tampa last week, George Sheldon and Perry Thurston — Democrats running against Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi — accused Bondi of challenging the initiative in court for that reason.
“You don't want those people to come out to vote,” Thurston said.
For all the back and forth, however, experts including Democrats and Republicans, pro- and anti-legalization advocates, say its effect on voter turnout is questionable.
There is evidence that marijuana initiatives increase turnout among young presumably Democratic-leaning voters. But that effect is strongest when the issue on the ballot is legalization rather than medical use as in Florida.
“My gut instinct is that the medical marijuana initiatives do not have the same kind of impact on young voter turnout,” said Steve Fox, a veteran of the movement for liberalization of marijuana laws and co-founder of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a new trade group for producers and sellers of legal marijuana.
A study by a legalization advocacy group, based on CNN election exit polls, suggests that three states with broad legalization initiatives on their ballots in 2012 — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — saw dramatic increases in the turnout of young voters.
Voters 18 to 29 in those states increased their share of the total vote by 6 to 12 percentage points over the 2008 election, the study found. In Washington, for example, voters 18 to 29 went from 10 percent of the total vote in 2008 to 22 percent in 2012.
By contrast, the increase in Florida that year and in the nation as a whole was 1 percentage point, from 15 percent to 16 percent in Florida and 18 percent to 19 percent nationwide.
Fox said he has never seen a similar increase with medical marijuana initiatives.
Veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who did research several years ago on the turnout effect of various kinds of ballot initiatives, disagreed, saying medical marijuana ballot questions do drive turnout of young voters, although not as much as legalization initiatives.
Another key finding for political strategists, Lake said, was that although some kinds of initiatives, particularly those on abortion or gay rights, tend to spur turnout by voters on both sides of the issue, “marijuana initiatives bring out only supporters.”
Bondi, through a campaign spokeswoman, declined to discuss the subject or answer the charges from Sheldon and Thurston.
The state usually has a lower and more Republican voter turnout on nonpresidential election years such as this. Young and minority voters are less likely to go to the polls when there's no presidential race on the ballot.
Some insiders think the marijuana initiative could make a difference.
That “off-year” phenomenon has made it hard for Florida Democrats to elect a governor or state Cabinet members.
“Anybody who says it's not going to affect turnout doesn't understand politics,” Patton insisted.
Some Republicans, however, question whether the initiative will stimulate Democratic turnout.
Tallahassee GOP political consultant Rick Wilson called the initiative “a John Morgan-Charlie Crist con game,” but said, “I haven't seen any direct survey work I trust that shows it will rev enough people up to make a significant difference.”
Brian Ballard, a veteran Tallahassee lobbyist and Republican fundraiser who is working with Scott's re-election campaign, said he thinks the initiative could drive a few Democrats to the polls but not enough to make much difference.
“If this is an effort to enhance Democratic prospects in November, it's pretty weak,” he said, noting that past ballot initiatives in Florida haven't had major effects on the outcome of races.
“Medical marijuana or pregnant pigs don't decide who's going to be governor of Florida,” Ballard said.
Morgan, a wealthy trial lawyer and principal of Orlando's Morgan & Morgan “for the people” law firm, is a longtime patron of Crist. He said he has spent more than $3 million to pay for gathering petition signatures to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot and pay lawyers to develop wording and defend it in court.
As of Friday, the amendment was on the verge of having enough signatures verified to qualify for a ballot spot, but the state Supreme Court has until April 1 to approve or disapprove the ballot wording.
Morgan said the accusation that he's doing this to help Crist, who works in his law firm, is “totally ridiculous.”
“I'm not as smart or devious as they think I am,” he said. “When I first started to do this, I was having conversations with (U.S. Sen.) Bill Nelson, urging him to get into the governor's race.”
Morgan said he began his involvement in February or March. He eventually took leadership of an existing petition drive, revamping its proposal and hiring signature gatherers.
Morgan repeatedly has said his involvement was spurred by the experiences of his late father, who used marijuana to counteract pain and nausea while being treated for cancer, and his brother, paralyzed in an accident as a teen, who used it for pain and spasms.
Morgan said he was asked so often about the turnout question that he asked David Simas, former campaign pollster for President Barack Obama and now a White House official, whether the measure would help Democrats.
“He said no.”