Here's motivation to mail in that ballot. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Here's motivation to mail in that ballot. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You would think that a proposal to require background checks on virtually all gun sales would be a no-brainer in the blue state of Washington.

A recent poll, taken before the killings last month in Santa Barbara, California, showed that 72 percent of the state's voters support a background-check measure on November's ballot -- 77 percent of women and 68 percent of men.

How do you lose that one? There are countless ways.

Despite the favorable numbers, the distance between telling a pollster you favor gun control and actually taking the time to mail in a ballot, which is all that is required in Washington, is vast.

Americans and Their Guns

Women are the key in gun-control initiatives. A national 2013 NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found that 65 percent of women favor stronger gun laws, compared with 44 percent of men. But certain groups of female voters in particular -- unmarried, younger, minority -- are known for sitting out midterm elections.

With no U.S. Senate or governor's race in Washington this fall, the Voter Participation Center, a research and civic engagement nonprofit, predicts a 26 percent drop-off of unmarried women voting compared with the 2012 presidential election year; it forecasts a 12 percent decline among married women. (Male voter participation also declines in midterm elections, but at a lower rate than for women.)

Turning these distracted women into voters will require more than an advertising blitz on Lifetime and Oxygen and other media that appeal to them. It's a delicate balancing act. Backers of the measure have to persuade people to care passionately enough to vote, yet they have to reassure those who worry that government is taking their guns, said Frank Greer, a national political consultant based in Seattle.

The measure would expand criminal and public safety background checks to almost all sales and transfers, including online purchases and from private sellers at gun shows. Federal law already requires background checks on sales from licensed dealers to block purchases by criminals and the dangerously mentally ill.

In Washington, some hunters and a Republican county prosecutor have been recruited to make the case that the initiative is mainstream, sensible, no big deal. Except that it is.

People who believe in the right to own firearms feel that way intensely. To sabotage the background-check plan, the gun-rights side managed to put a countermeasure on the same ballot that would effectively preclude that from happening.

And guess what? The Elway Poll that found overwhelming support for the expanded background checks also showed support for the pro-gun measure -- about 55 percent of voters overall.

How can gun-safety groups make sure that voters aren't so confused or annoyed by this political jujitsu that they toss the ballot into the recycling bin?

To succeed, the campaign will have to tell compelling personal stories of gun violence with a direct pitch to women who worry about their families. With numerous school shootings since the rampage in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 and the killings last month in Santa Barbara, fears about safety are high. Background checks may be no panacea, but supporters can claim with assurance that they help make schools, colleges and public places a bit safer.

Besides ads on TV shows and channels aimed at women, the pro-background-check side will also mix in proven strategies in voter identification and mobilization.

Activists see a path to success in Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which won tougher laws with grass-roots networking and lobbying efforts. After the Newtown killings, a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America emerged to create a similar strategy on guns. (That group is working in a coalition, Everytown for Gun Safety, alongside Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was started by former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.)

After a campaign kickoff this week, thousands of volunteers will spread the word in workplaces, schools, grocery stores and book clubs. Using digital peer pressure, advocates will be contacting infrequent voters via Facebook and Twitter, with everything from campaign logos in place of personal profile pictures to gun-safety postings and tweets. Women are much more likely than men to use Facebook and other social-networking tools.

Voting is ridiculously easy in Washington. All anyone has to do is watch for the ballot in the mail, mark it, affix a stamp and return it. If women voters are somehow too distracted or blase to participate, measures such as the one in Washington won't succeed. That’s crazy. This year, citizens, not politicians, are making the decision. They have a chance to take a simple, logical stand.

To contact the writer of this article: Joni Balter at jcbalter@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.