Why Some States Are Moving To Restrict Ballot Initiatives
When voters head to the polls this November, they’ll decide on more than just which candidates to support for public office. Ballot measures (also called ballot initiatives, amendments or referendums) are a way for citizens to express the will of the people by putting important issues directly to the public for a vote. This election season, voters in at least 31 states will have the chance to vote on dozens of them, but, unless we act now, that number may dwindle in years to come.
Ballot measures encompass a wide range of issues and express positions across the political spectrum — everything from Medicaid expansion to marijuana legalization, public education funding, property tax adjustments, wage increases, abortion protections, bail reform, early voting and same-day registration and waste reduction, you name it. Yet despite the partisan neutrality of ballot initiatives, some politicians have taken aim at this process simply because they don’t like the decisions made by a majority of the voters.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways for initiatives to end up on the ballot. You can knock on your neighbors’ doors to collect the required number of petition signatures to qualify an initiative for a public vote, or measures can be referred to the ballot by politicians in the legislature. Not everyone will agree on every measure that’s put to a vote, in fact, some measures can be quite controversial. But what’s important is the freedom of the people to vote on the issues placed before them; that’s why it is deeply troubling to watch the volume of attacks on this constitutional freedom steadily increase year after year.
During the 2021 legislative session, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center monitored 146 bills aimed at restricting or abolishing the ballot measure process, a 500% increase from the 33 bills introduced in 2017. In the first two months of this year, 13 state legislatures around the country have proposed another 87 restrictions on the ballot measure process that could create more barriers than ever before.
These restrictive measures take a variety of forms, but they all have the same function: to undermine the will of the people and diminish their decision-making power.
In the past, these restrictive measures predominantly took aim at undermining the will of the people by weakening or overturning initiatives already passed by a majority of voters. Recently, after Florida voters overwhelmingly opted to raise the minimum wage, a bill was introduced to create a “sub-minimum” wage for service workers. Likewise, the Missouri Legislature refused to fund Medicaid expansion after it was passed by voters.
Politicians aren’t stopping there. In addition to overturning or undermining already approved initiatives, they are trying to make it harder for people to put issues on the ballot by burdening the signature-gathering process with cumbersome and unnecessary restrictions. A South Dakota law does this by requiring canvassers to carry around a beach towel-sized petition, for example.
But what is perhaps now the most common tactic to undermine ballot initiatives is legislation that raises the threshold to pass a ballot measure after it has gone through the rigorous process of qualifying for the ballot in the first place. Legislators are eager to create supermajority requirements for policies that the people bring forward while keeping a simple majority for policies they want to pass.
This is happening all across the United States. In Arizona, a measure to raise the requirement to a 60% majority from a simple majority recently passed out of the state House; in South Dakota, the Legislature referred an initiative that would similarly raise the threshold for other initiatives to 60%, but will itself only need a simple-majority to be ratified; and in Missouri, lawmakers have proposed leaping from the current simple majority threshold all the way up to a two-thirds majority.
Taken together, these tactics represent a deliberate, sustained and escalating effort to undermine ballot initiatives at every step of the process. The politicians pushing these restrictive measures are trying to make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot, make it harder to pass initiatives after they’re on the ballot and then overturning the initiatives that do pass, despite winning approval from a majority of the voters.
We are still in the middle of the 2022 state legislative sessions, which means more attempts to undermine the citizens’ initiative process could crop up in state legislatures. It also means there’s still time for us to come together and protect this essential tool of direct democracy. Internal BISC research shows that, in the states where efforts to erode the process are the most prevalent, staggering amounts of voters are not even aware that they’re happening. And when voters hear about them, they oppose them vehemently. If this is happening in your state, this is an opportunity to come together with your neighbors, to take collective action and to let legislators know that these efforts are unacceptable.
Our will, our power and our freedom are at stake; with restrictions on voting rights also on the rise, it is more important than ever to protect our freedom to shape the laws that govern us, especially through ballot initiatives. Once this freedom is lost, there’s no going back. The time to act is now, before the opportunity is lost forever.
Chris Melody Fields Figueredo is the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), an organization which implements a national progressive strategy to analyze and support the ballot measure landscape. In 2021 and 2022, BISC monitored more than 215 proposed restrictions against the ballot measure process and continues to track these efforts.