Americans are increasingly embracing ballot initiatives as a democratic tool. It seems many Republicans are now frightened that democracy might work.
The ongoing chicanery in Missouri serves as a telling case study. Organizers in the state filed signatures by the May 6 deadline to put Proposition A — a referendum to repeal Missouri’s Right to Work law — on the ballot in November.
Conservatives have firm control of the state government but failed to gather enough signatures for their own question. So Republicans moved at a dizzying pace to move the November vote to August, when turnout is lower and prospects for passage reduced. The brazen attempt to hurt the ballot’s prospects became official on May 17. In case that doesn’t work they are hedging their bets by fast-tracking a constitutional amendment that would make it virtually impossible to overturn the policy.
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This confrontation between elected officials and their own citizens makes it easy to understand why 40 percent of the country has, according to a March 6 poll from Axios/Survey Monkey, stopped believing in American democracy. It also reflects two important stories for the coming election cycle: The increasing use of ballot referendums to make progressive change and the corresponding rise in GOP attacks on the referendum process.
“Citizen-led ballot referendums are an important tool [and] people are increasingly excited about them,” said Kellie Dupree, director of partnerships and training at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), in an interview with Truthout. “The problem is that this tool is unavailable in 24 states, and where it does exist, like Missouri, the process is under attack.”
Given the growing importance of referendums to advance progressive goals, the outcome of these battles could have a huge impact on the well-being of Americans and democracy in the US.
Progressive Ballot Referendums on the Rise
The good news for progressives is that this resistance is a backlash to some promising, sometimes sweeping reform efforts taking place through citizen-led initiatives. Elections in 2016 represented a 10-year high on citizen ballot initiatives. The rapid pace at which citizens have changed cannabis law using referendums is a strong example of this. Cannabis-related initiatives were pursued more than any other issue in 2016, Dupree told Truthout.
“Cannabis is a good example where voters felt one way and politicians didn’t act. The ballots allowed them to get around that and advance the will of the people,” Dupree said. “Now that they are seeing a relatively smooth implementation of the policies, I think they are more open to using the process in their own states for a number of issues.”
Cannabis generates a lot of interest, but arguably more pressing are the many ballot questions aimed at economic and electoral justice. As of now, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii and Colorado are fighting for paid family leave. In at least five states, citizens are pursuing minimum wage increases. Voters in several red states are pursuing Medicaid expansion, which would increase access to citizens who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Other possible ballot questions could end the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions in Florida, force dark money to be disclosed in Arizona and end partisan gerrymandering in Michigan. As signature deadlines vary by states, more questions like this are to be expected in 2018 and campaigns are well underway for more questions in 2020 and beyond.
“The ballot process question is a really important way to counter the forces that are contributing to economic injustice,” said Andrew Farnitano, spokesperson for RaiseUp Massachusetts, a large coalition of organizations that are organizing for progressive initiatives in the state. “In Massachusetts, we know these kinds of questions are really popular, and not just because we are a blue state. This issue reaches all kinds of people.”
Indeed, support for progressive economic reforms is especially high in Massachusetts. Paid Leave, a $15 Minimum Wage and a Millionaire Tax are all being pursued aggressively. Polls from local news channel WBUR show 78 percent support the minimum wage measure, 76 percent support the millionaire tax and 82 percent support paid family leave. Several business organizations are also backing some or all of the questions, including Business for a Fair Minimum Wage and the Alliance for Business Leadership. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, is hoping to find a “grand bargain” — some kind of legislative fix before November. As WBUR notes, however, “proponents may be less likely to accept a compromise,” with such high levels of public support.
Ballot referendums often force legislators to go to the table to address issues they would’ve otherwise ignored, Farnitano said. The threat of a ballot initiative is one reason Massachusetts passed a minimum wage increase in 2014. The increase to $11 was the highest for any state in the nation at the time, though it has since been surpassed by Washington state, which passed a $15 minimum wage in a 2016 referendum.
Massachusetts organizers have had many recent victories using ballot referendums. They passed marijuana legalization in 2016, eight years after they passed decriminalization. The state also supported a 2014 ballot to give workers paid sick time, and pushed back efforts to cut public schools in favor of charter school vouchers.
Polling notwithstanding, there are obstacles in the Bay State. Business groups are challenging the legality of the Millionaire Tax, or “Fair Share Amendment” and the state’s Supreme Judicial Court is expected to make a decision any day now. Should the measure survive litigation and be passed in November, according to CommonWealth, it would provide $1.9 billion in new revenue earmarked for schools and infrastructure.
Moreover, if the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (which is staunchly opposed to a minimum wage hike) is successful in lowering the sales tax, the state could face a serious revenue shortage. This gives Republicans a little more leverage in negotiations. The state also has a Republican governor, which was not the case in 2014 when Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, signed minimum wage legislation in the face of ballot initiative pressure in 2014.
“We are open to a legislative deal that addresses these issues and we are having conversations,” Farnitano said. “There is always room for compromise, but we won’t give up on the essentials of these policies. We must protect the working class.”
Obstacles and Obstructionists
While those battles in Massachusetts have their complications, many states face far more hostile conditions. Their New England neighbors in Maine face what might be the scariest threat of all: Gov. Paul LePage. This racist, classist and highly controversial governor also has open contempt for democracy. “If we were a democracy we would have already fallen apart,” he said in 2016.
In his 2018 (and final, as he is termed out) State of the State speech, he said, “Referendum is pure democracy and it has not worked for 15,000 years.”
It is not all talk with him. Since Maine passed a slew of ballot initiatives for progressive policies in 2016 — Medicaid expansion, a fair-share tax, ranked-choice voting and marijuana legalization — LePage has been “using the full weight of his political capital,” as the Bangor Daily News reported, to prevent their implementation. He successfully squashed the new tax on the wealthy during budget negotiations after a partial shutdown of the government and made every effort to stop pot legalization from happening. He is also trying to make it harder to put ballot initiatives in play, with stricter requirements that put grassroots organizations at a huge advantage.
“It is almost utter lawlessness the way he ignores his own voters,” said Dupree, noting Maine’s constitution does not give the governor veto power over referendums. Still, LePage has said referendums are really just “recommendations.”
LePage’s refusal to implement Medicaid expansion is especially cruel. He now faces litigation while 70,000 Mainers remain uninsured. Advocates in Maine say this is consistent with the politician’s contempt for poor and sick people. He has also placed lifetime caps on medication for opioid abuse treatment in the state’s Medicaid plan, and tried to make it as difficult as possible for the drug Narcan to be distributed. Narcan is used to immediately reverse an opioid overdose and is crucial for combatting the deadly overdose epidemic.
“He speaks to these ugly stigmas. It is hard to imagine a worse governor on public health issues,” said Noah Nesin, a physician in Maine, in an interview with Truthout. Nesin made news when he offered to prescribe Narcan to anyone in the state out of desperation in the face of LePage’s policies.
The list of obstruction efforts don’t end in Maine, nor do they end with politicians. Corporations use their leverage as well. Comcast has refused to run ads for a ballot initiative in Oregon for a campaign for new corporate taxes until their company’s name was removed from it. In South Dakota, the state that had the first ballot initiatives in the country, the legislature passed nearly a dozen bills to rein in ballot referendums after the voters passed ethics reform.
Because of these attacks, the referendum process has become harder and more confusing, according to organizers. Not only must they gather signatures and win the referendum, now they must deal with the threat of post-election obstruction. Campaign finance restrictions that apply to traditional campaigns do not exist for ballot measures. Billionaires like the Koch Brothers often use state groups they fund through the State Policy Network to provide the illusion of grassroots support. The Kochs were instrumental, for instance, in decimating a proposal in Colorado that would have created a quasi-single-payer health system on the 2016 ballot.
Conservative Referendums in 2018
Republicans’ growing distaste for the referendum process could come back to haunt them.
“In the early 2000s conservatives were doing better than progressives with referendums, largely pushing culture issues,” Dupree said. “But now that the public opinion has shifted on a lot of issues, they are pivoting.”
Still, there is plenty of work to do in 2018 to defeat regressive ballot measures. There are campaigns to repeal sanctuary-city protections in California, to limit the access of transgender people to public restrooms in Massachusetts, and to limit access to abortion and put the Ten Commandments on public buildings and property in Arizona.
Clearly, there is a lot at stake in 2018 beyond control of Congress. Ballot initiatives have a chance to create change at a pace much faster, and much more in line with public sentiment.
“The public is often way ahead of politicians,” said Tom Wyche, a spokesperson for Raise Up Missouri, which is organizing a minimum wage ballot question in the state. “When politicians undermine their will, they have a lot of explaining to do.”
Problems like gerrymandering, voter suppression, foreign meddling, the two-party monopoly, corporate donations, lobbying and the archaic electoral college have led to this justified skepticism in our democratic institutions and elections. If politicians deprive voters of this last bastion of direct democracy, even as it becomes an increasingly important tool for the people, this skepticism might turn to rage.