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Analysis Shows Republicans Have Ramped Up Efforts to Curtail Ballot Initiatives

GOP lawmakers "have become increasingly hostile to the ballot measure process," the Democracy Docket analysis noted.

People are seen in line to vote at the sole polling place open for Saturday early voting in Bartow County on November 26, 2022, in Cartersville, Georgia.

As Ohioans vote on the status of a ballot initiative this week, Democracy Docket — a progressive organization that monitors voting rights, elections and democracy — has issued a new report detailing how the Republican Party is ramping up efforts to suppress voters across the country.

The ballot initiative is a Progressive-era mechanism that allows voters in certain states to place a binding referendum question on the ballot after meeting a signature threshold, potentially establishing a statute or a state constitutional amendment. According to the new report, Republicans have increasingly crafted legislation to diminish voters’ ability to place certain policies on the ballot over the past few years.

As Democracy Docket has noted, when Democrats, mostly in the early 2010s, sought to limit the power of the initiative, it was usually in defense of civil rights — they restricted the mechanism, for example, in response to right-wing efforts to limit the ability of same-sex couples to marry. As the decade progressed, however, Democrats and their allies learned to use the ballot initiative to pass popular policies like marijuana reforms, Medicaid expansion and reproductive rights protections.

In response, Republicans have ramped up efforts to impede the ballot initiative process, especially in states where the GOP has had majority control of state legislatures and the governor’s office.

“In particular, Republican state legislators have become increasingly hostile to the ballot measure process, crafting creative ways to prevent measures from making it to the ballot or to stop voters from approving progressive measures,” Democracy Docket wrote in its report.

Republicans’ efforts to restrict the practice “far outpace any initial attempts by Democrats during the period we studied, particularly when Republicans have a trifecta in state government,” the organization went on.

In states that have a ballot initiative, thousands of bills have been introduced over the past 12 years to reform the measure, including hundreds that were proposed in order to limit voters’ rights.

Lawmakers took a number of routes in their efforts to curtail the ballot initiative, the organization’s analysis found. Over the past decade or so, 20 bills sought to change the way petitioners could collect signatures for a ballot initiative, while 51 sought to change signature requirements. Lawmakers also introduced a whopping 179 bills to create a new ballot measure process to replace ones that already existed, often to the detriment of voters seeking to change state law or state constitutions.

Overall, from 2010 to 2022, Republicans sponsored 255 bills seeking to restrict the ballot initiative process — more than double the amount Democrats introduced when they sought to curtail the practice, typically in the name of protecting civil rights.

The report from Democracy Docket, published on Monday, comes as Ohioans vote on Tuesday on the status of their own ballot initiative. Republican lawmakers in that state — responding to an effort to place abortion rights on a statewide ballot initiative — have introduced a ballot initiative on the process itself, seeking to create new standards for how the initiative can function going forward.

Notably, Republicans placed the question on the ballot in the primary election that generally has the lowest voter participation. (Last year, the primary race only saw 8 percent voter turnout.) If enough GOP-aligned voters support their efforts, future initiatives — including potentially the abortion rights question set to appear on the November ballot — would require a supermajority rate of 60 percent support from voters in order to be implemented.

The proposed amendment, set to appear on the ballot in November, states that “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.” It would replace Ohio’s current law on abortion, which bars abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, with a standard that would allow the procedure up to around 22 to 24 weeks.

If Ohio Republicans’ effort to impede future initiatives through a majority vote on Issue 1 on Tuesday is successful, it could curtail the ballot question on abortion and reproductive rights, which has close to 60 percent support, curtailing the rights of millions in the state in the process.

Abortion rights activists and their allies have condemned Republican lawmakers for putting the restrictive question on a ballot that most voters in the state have generally opted out of.

The vote will “hit voters while they are not paying attention during the dog days of summer,” the editorial board for The Columbus Dispatch wrote last month.

Common Cause Ohio also denounced the GOP-led tactic. “The ability for citizens to put issues before the voters was established as a check on the state legislature. Are our legislative leaders afraid of voters?” the progressive organization recently asked.

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