Republicans Hint at Why They Are Restricting Ballot Measures in These States
This year, Ohio Republicans resurrected a proposal that would require proposed constitutional amendments to earn 60% of the vote before taking effect. They tried to ram an identical resolution through the 2022 lame duck session before the bill failed due to significant public opposition. Similarly, on Feb. 22 the Utah House passed a bill that would require any ballot measure that raises taxes to earn 60% of the vote. Both of these proposals would make the ballot measure process — the way for voters to enact policy proposals or constitutional amendments without input from the state legislature — more difficult.
Unfortunately, Ohio and Utah aren’t alone in taking steps to make this democratic process more difficult. Several other Republican-controlled states are considering similar proposals. In many of these states, these bills are designed in response to ballot measures that have enacted policies — like codifying abortion rights and expanding public benefits — that Republicans don’t support.
Republicans have tried to restrict ballot measures in the past few years.
2023 is far from the first year that Republicans have sought to tinker with the ballot measure process. Several states voted on proposed changes in 2022, in most cases rejecting attempts to restrict the ability of voters to enact policies and amendments themselves. In November 2022, voters in Arizona rejected a proposal from their Republican-controlled Legislature to give the Legislature more authority to amend voter-approved measures, yet approved two proposals that limit the ballot measure process: one imposes a single-subject rule on measures and another raises the vote threshold to 60% for measures that increase taxes. Arkansas and South Dakota voters, meanwhile, both rejected attempts to increase the approval thresholds in their states.
In some cases, Republican attacks on ballot measures are both more direct (and more blunt) than merely tinkering with the rules that allow measures to go forward. In 2022, Republican officials in Michigan tried to block a voting rights measure and an abortion measure from going before voters. Ultimately, the Michigan Supreme Court had to step in to place both measures on the ballot — after which Michiganders voted overwhelmingly in favor of both.
Similar measures also went before voters in 2020, with Arkansans rejecting an attempt to strengthen the petition requirements and Floridians rejecting a proposal to require two separate votes on proposed constitutional amendments.
This year, at least five states are considering changes to make the ballot measure process more difficult.
In addition to Ohio and Utah, at least three other states are also considering legislation to hinder the ballot measure process. On Feb. 21, the Arizona Senate approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would require future ballot measures amending the Arizona Constitution to earn 60% of the vote in order to go into effect. The bill now heads to the Arizona House for approval; if passed, Arizonans will have to approve the proposal during the next general election in November 2024. With the Arizona House also controlled (albeit narrowly) by Republicans, the amendment stands a good chance at making it to the ballot.
Florida, meanwhile, has its own proposal to raise the threshold to approve amendments. Amendments already need to earn 60% of the vote in Florida, but House Joint Resolution 129 would raise that threshold to 66.67% (a two-thirds majority). The Florida Legislature will come back into session on March 7 to consider H.J.R 129 and other bills; raising the threshold would also have to be approved by the voters before going into effect.
Rather than targeting the number of votes needed to approve measures, Idaho’s proposal instead restricts the petition process that allows everyday Idahoans, as opposed to the Legislature, to place measures on the ballot in the first place. If Idaho voters get enough signatures, they can place proposed ballot measures on the ballot themselves without involvement from the Legislature. Under Senate Joint Resolution 101, however, petitioners would need signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of the state’s 35 legislative districts. If approved by the Legislature, S.J.R. 101 will go before the voters during the 2024 general election.
Finally, lawmakers in Missouri have introduced multiple resolutions to modify the ballot measure process. Some would raise the threshold to approve ballot measures to 60% while others would raise it even higher to two-thirds of votes cast. Other resolutions would also raise the threshold, but in a less direct way. For instance, one proposal would require that ballot measures receive a vote equal to a majority of all registered voters rather than just a majority of votes cast in an election. Another proposal would mandate that measures must win a majority of state House or state Senate districts, too. Instead of a simple majority, they would need a majority of the statewide vote and majorities of the vote in at least half of legislative districts. Other Missouri bills, similar to Idaho, would target the petition process by increasing the number of signatures required and mandating that signatures come from all of the state’s congressional districts.
Republicans want to change the ballot measures rules to block proposals they don’t support, even if voters do.
The persistence of Republican efforts to restrict the ballot measure process becomes easier to understand when one considers the kind of policies enacted by voters in recent years. In state after state, voters have approved policies via ballot measures that Republican lawmakers would not have supported. Many states, for instance, have expanded Medicaid or legalized marijuana via ballot measures over the objections of Republican officials.
Republican efforts to restrict ballot measures in Missouri, for example, come after voters in the Show-Me State successfully expanded Medicaid and blocked a right-to-work law from going into effect. Medicaid expansion would have failed if the approval threshold had been 60% (it passed with 53% in 2020) and the right-to-work law might not have passed if measures were required to earn a majority of all registered voters instead of just a majority of votes cast. Similarly, Florida — which already has a higher-than majority threshold — recently restored voting rights to individuals with felony convictions and raised the minimum wage, both of which would have failed with a two-thirds requirement. With this context in mind, it’s not surprising Republicans have grown sour on the ballot measure process.
Sometimes, Republicans don’t even hide their intentions. When the Ohio Legislature was first considering its proposal at the end of 2022, the Republican sponsor circulated a letter to his colleagues urging them to support his resolution to raise the vote threshold for ballot measures. Very bluntly, he argued that the resolution is necessary to block voters from enshrining a right to reproductive care into the state constitution and amending the state’s redistricting process after Ohio Republicans consistently gerrymandered the state’s political maps. He clearly framed the amendment as a way to block policies he and his fellow Republicans do not support.
Attempts to meddle in the measure process reflect Republican contempt for democracy.
Initiatives and ballot measures are an essential part of American democracy in many states and give voters an important tool to enact needed (and popular) policy changes. Given Republican attempts to limit voting and gerrymander electoral districts, ballot measures are a natural target for a party increasingly set on perpetuating minority rule. Rather than trying to persuade voters not to support policies, they’d prefer to make it harder for voters to enact changes themselves. If voters continue to approve policies Republicans oppose, attempts to restrict ballot measures will likely continue to pop up across the country.