Direct Democracy in Danger

As legislative sessions end in states from Maine to Arizona, one dangerous trend has mostly flown under the radar: There is a coordinated, conservative attack on the ballot measure process throughout the country.

While not available everywhere, the 24 states that utilize citizen initiatives give voters the opportunity to directly vote on many crucial issues, including increasing the minimum wage, voting rights, and revenue for public services. For voters in states with citizen initiatives, voting on ballot measures are as much a part of the democratic process as electing the governor or state representatives.

My organization, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, is tracking more than 40 attacks on the ballot measures process, and a number of attacks directly on 2016 ballot measure results. Virtually all of these attacks have been perpetrated by Republicans. The intent is clear: to eliminate one of progressives’ last avenues for reform. The Republican lock hold on the federal government, 33 governorships and 32 state legislatures means that ballot measures are of little use to conservatives, but they are one of the last avenues for progressives to pass much-needed policies for working families.

For this reason, conservatives have explicitly declared war on ballot measures. A joint New York Times/Pro-Publica investigation published last fall quoted a 2015 memo from the Republican State Leadership Committee that stated, “Ballot initiatives will not be the left’s mechanism for gaining power and advancing their agenda when voters have already rejected them.” On their website ALEC also links to sample legislation that allows state lawmakers to draft legislation that prevents municipalities from mounting local ballot measures.

In 2017, Arizona has been ground zero for ballot measure attacks. There, the conservative state legislature has passed bills that fundamentally alter the ways in which a measure qualifies for the ballot. Arizona conservatives have made it so difficult to initiate the ballot process that it’s now possible to disqualify ballot petitions for reasons as arbitrary as an incorrect font size or margin width. By holding petitions to this standard, the ballot measure process in Arizona will be reduced to a tangle of technicalities, court battles and lawyers’ fees rather than a substantive debate on the issues. There are attacks on the signature gathering process in six other states from Maine to Colorado. While not all the legislation we’ve been tracking has passed, the trend is clear.

Perhaps even more shockingly, a number of elected officials around the country are refusing to honor the measures passed by the same voters who elected them into office. Incorrectly calling ballot measures “recommendations,” Maine Gov. Paul LePage has waged a war on the state’s newly approved minimum wage law. Meanwhile, legislators in Oklahoma have undone many of the criminal justice reforms passed by voters last November. And in South Dakota, legislators eliminated the ethics commission that voters created to regulate them. This is not how a democracy should work. Elected officials do not get to pick and choose which election results they are willing to accept.

What all these attacks have in common is a blatant contempt for the will of the voters. Conservatives’ disregard for ballot measures is especially hypocritical because they were once an important political tool for them.  In the 1990s and 2000s, conservatives used ballot measures to advance policies such as the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, discriminate against immigrants, restrict a woman’s right to choose, enact marriage equality bans, and attack affirmative action. But now that conservatives control both the federal and many state governments, and they no longer need ballot measures, they are doing everything in their power to eliminate them.

Like most aspects of our democracy, the ballot measure process is imperfect. Over the years, we at BISC have called for reforms ourselves and still believe the process can be made more accessible and transparent. We have advocated for ballot titles to be written in a clear, straightforward manner, for donor disclosure on petitions, and for more protections to ensure the sanctity of the signature gathering process. The difference between these reforms and what is happening in state legislatures and governors’ mansions this year, is that we support both accessibility and integrity in the process. The reforms proposed by conservatives this year will primarily have the effect of making it prohibitively expensive and difficult for all but the wealthiest organizations and individuals to mount a ballot initiative campaign.

The modern ballot initiative arose in an age not very different from our own. In 1911, against a backdrop of rising inequality and a legislature beholden to special interests, California Gov. Hiram Johnson created ballot initiatives as a check on money in politics. Once again, we find ourselves in a political era dominated by special interests, and one where voters increasingly feel unrepresented by their elected officials. In our current political climate, ballot measures provide a means for alternative issues to be heard and for issues to rise to the forefront. But that can only happen if the ballot measure process is protected.


Justine Sarver is the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

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