On November 8, voters in five states will decide on initiatives to legalize cannabis for adult use: Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. Notably, all of them except Maryland can be considered “red” states, having voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since at least 2000. Of the 19 states that have previously legalized, almost all, with the exceptions of Alaska and Montana, are blue or purple.
Despite most GOP lawmakers opposing cannabis legalization, more Republican voters nationally support it than oppose it. But winning ballot measures in more conservative states gives organizers the challenge of reaching out beyond the cities that are typically blue islands.
Here’s what polling shows us so far in the five states that are about to vote:
Arkansas: A September survey showed about 59 percent of likely voters in support—with 75 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents, and a plurality (but not a majority) of Republicans. However, a poll released October 23 showed the race tightening, with 51 percent in favor and 43 percent against.
Maryland: A September poll of likely voters showed 59 percent in support—with 70 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents in favor, but 53 percent of Republicans opposed.
Missouri: A September survey showed 62 percent in support—including 77 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of independents and 54 percent of Republicans.
South Dakota: An October poll showed 45 percent in favor versus 47 percent opposed—a razor-thin gap within the poll’s margin of error. However, when reached by Filter, the group South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws shared internal polling showing 54 percent support—with solid majorities of Democrats and independents, but not of Republicans.
North Dakota: No current polling is available.
Age Could Determine More Than Party
In North Dakota, a past legalization bid actually did not perform well in some of the state’s biggest cities. Organizers there know they can’t rely only on turning out Democratic voters, and have to appeal across partisan lines.
“In terms of party breakdown, there’s been a major shift in support among Republicans among the last 10-20 years,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Filter. “At this point they’re about 50-50. Democrats tend to be more strongly supportive, and independents are somewhere in the middle.”
“We don’t want to assume Republicans are opposed, because many of them are not.”
However, age may be an even stronger factor than party when it comes to supporting legalization. “The younger a voter is the more likely they are to be supportive, whereas older voters tend to be less supportive,” Moffat said. “Other demographics really don’t seem to have much effect.”
“We want to see turnout among all groups,” he continued. “We don’t want to assume Republicans are opposed, because many of them are not.”
Across the border in South Dakota, a representative of South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws told Filter, “Our path to victory is to maintain the lead that we currently hold by ensuring that we are not outspent by our opponents while at the same time turning out our supporters. The biggest risk we face is complacency from pro-Measure 27 voters who do not always participate in midterm elections.”
In Maryland, a solidly blue state, advocates are pretty confident of victory. “I do believe this initiative is going to pass no matter what, at least by 51 percent,” Kevin Ford Jr., treasurer of the Uplift Action Maryland PAC, told Filter. “We’re hoping it will be plus-60.”
Ford and his allies are working to bring out the vote in majority-Black areas of the state, in part to underline the social justice implications of legalization. “The reason why we’re focused on primarily Black jurisdictions is because we want to make sure they actually come out and vote for this,” he said. “When someone asks do you support this, they’re going to say yes. But are they really going to go to the poll to make their voice heard?”
“It’s a generational divide more than anything.”
When it comes to party, Ford does not think the votes will show a simple red-and-blue divide. “The Republicans I think have been pretty pro-business on this,” he said. “There were very few legislators who voted against the measure in the general assembly … I don’t really think it’s been a partisan thing.”
Like Moffat, he noted that “It’s a generational divide more than anything.”
Advocates in Missouri and Arkansas have previously expressed confidence in their prospects. But in Arkansas, particularly, Republican lawmakers have relentlessly attacked legalization, and that appears to be reflected in tighter polling as “more Republicans seem to be dropping off,” according to Marijuana Moment.
Can Past Votes Tell Us Anything?
Of the five states voting on cannabis legalization next month, four have voted on some cannabis legalization measure in the last six years.
In Arkansas, voters in 2016 approved an amendment to legalize medical marijuana by 53 percent. Breaking it down by county, we see the amendment performed well in all the most populated regions—in and around Little Rock, the capital and largest city, and in other counties where larger cities are located. But it also won in some more rural areas, including Chicot, Desha, Phillips, Calhoun and Nevada Counties.
In North Dakota, voters in 2018 decided against legalizing marijuana. With over 59 percent opposed, Measure 3 lost in 49 of the state’s 53 counties. It won Cass County, home to the state’s largest city, Fargo. But it lost Burleigh County—seat of the state capital, Bismarck—and Grand Forks and Ward Counties, which also have larger cities. It did however win Benson, Rolette and Sioux Counties, all of them rural. Sioux County, with less than 4,000 residents, approved the measure by the highest margin anywhere in the state, at over 70 percent (it lies entirely within the Standing Rock reservation).
In 2020, South Dakota voters approved Amendment A to legalize adult-use cannabis, with 54 percent support statewide. It won Minnehaha, Lincoln, Pennington, Brown, Brookings and Codington Counties—home to the state’s top five populated cities, including Sioux Falls and Rapid City. But it also did well in more rural areas throughout the state. In fact, the two areas where it performed best in the state were Oglala Lakota and Todd Counties, the latter with a population under 500 (both are within Native American reservations). You’d think South Dakota wouldn’t need to vote on this a second time, but a lawsuit funded by Governor Kristi Noem (R) led to a state Supreme Court decision invalidating the 2020 victory on procedural grounds.
Finally, Missouri voters approved medical marijuana legalization by over 65 percent in 2018. The results by county don’t follow any political divide—it performed well in and around the state’s largest cities, including St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, Columbia and the capital, Jefferson City. But all over the state, many other suburban and rural areas approved it—including Howell, Oregon, Scotland and Knox Counties. If you compare it to the 2020 governor’s race, when Republican candidate Mike Parson won all but four of the state’s counties, it’s a completely different map.
As Republican politicians know all too well, performing consistently in rural and suburban areas can be what edges you over the finish line.
All this suggests that in a statewide legalization initiative, you need voters in major metropolitan areas to turn out. But you also can’t count on their support—nor can you assume suburban and rural voters will oppose a measure. Metro counties can deliver tens of thousands of votes apiece. But as Republican politicians know all too well, performing consistently in rural and suburban areas—where you’ll pick up votes by just thousands or even hundreds—can be what edges you over the finish line.
There’s another potential wrinkle in the storythis November—the toxic effect of former President Trump’s repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, with fraudulent mail ballots to blame. Could this discourage some Republican-leaning voters, some of whom support legalization, from weighing in?
“It’s probably the case that given changes in the discourse around mail voting that Republicans have kind of grown suspicious of it,” Moffat said. “Historically that hasn’t been true. Both parties have been about equal until recent years. It’s kind of a wildcard; no one knows what’s going to happen this year.”
Photograph by greenserenityca via Pixabay