Amid growing concerns that Republicans will try to use new voting laws to overturn elections in the wake of a campaign of lies stoking unfounded fears about vote-rigging, GOP-led state legislatures across the country are already trying to reverse popular ballot initiatives approved by majorities of voters.
Missouri voters last year passed a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid. Arizona approved a new tax on the wealthy to fund schools. South Dakota legalized marijuana. But Republicans are trying to block those measures from being implemented and dozens of state legislatures are pushing new bills to make it harder to get voter initiatives on the ballot in the first place.
“As more progressive issues are winning at the ballot, from Medicaid expansion to legalization and decriminalization of marijuana to raising the minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, increasing access to the voting process, we have seen concerted efforts by state legislators to undermine the will of the people,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), said in an interview with Salon.
BISC is tracking 125 bills to change the ballot measure process in 28 states, including measures that would increase the thresholds to get initiatives on the ballot or approved. Other proposals would require ballot initiatives to pass multiple times, increase filing fees and change the signature requirements. Republican lawmakers have also introduced more than 300 bills to restrict voting, dozens of anti-protest bills, and numerous measures that would undermine or snatch power from state courts and local election boards.
The effort to reverse voter-led ballot measures is “deeply connected to what we’re seeing across the country after yet another election where people of color and young people turn out in record numbers demanding a different future,” Figueredo said. “We see all of this as a concerted effort to limit and reduce people-led and people-initiated power.”
Missouri voters last year approved a state constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid to more than 200,000 low-income residents, with 53% supporting the proposal in a state Donald Trump won easily. Republican lawmakers opposed the measure, arguing that it would be too expensive even though the federal government would cover 90% of the costs and research found that it would save the state an estimated $39 million per year. Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who opposed the amendment, said he would respect the vote and introduced a budget funding the expansion. But last week, the Republican-led state legislature rejected Parson’s additional $130 million in spending and voted not to fund the expansion.
Parson may still decide to allow newly eligible residents to enroll in the program and risk running out of funding. But “if he chooses not to do that then the fight will go to the courts,” Missouri House Democratic leader Crystal Quade said in an interview with Salon.
“We are extremely frustrated by this but frankly not surprised,” Quade continued. “In Missouri, the initiative petition process has been used to pass a lot of things that the legislature is not doing, or is trying to do that the voters disagree with. We’ve seen time and time again the Republican majority here undo the will of the voters and continue to just not listen to them.”
Republican legislators are also trying to make it more difficult to get these initiatives on the ballot after voters approved the Medicaid expansion as well as other initiatives to legalize medical marijuana, overturn the state’s right-to-work law and implement redistricting reforms (which were also later overturned with backing from Republicans). Supporters already need to collect signatures from at least 8% of voters in six of the state’s eight congressional districts. Republicans have introduced a bill that would raise the signature requirement to 10% to 15% of voters in all districts and raise the vote threshold to pass an initiative to 60% or 66%. Other bills would require the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment before it becomes a ballot measure and raise the filing fee for initiative petitions.
“The issue with initiative petitions all over the country — it’s outside influences, outside of Missouri, that are coming in and influencing state policy,” state Rep. John Simmons, a Republican who backs one of the measures, told the Associated Press, arguing that outside groups misled voters about the cost of the program.
But Quade said legislation to change the ballot initiative process will only require campaigns in the state to spend even more money.
“Then we will only see more money having to come in to do these measures, and so that argument does not make sense to me,” she said. “In terms of them thinking that it’s too easy, my response to that is that it shouldn’t be difficult for regular citizens to hold their legislature accountable when we’re not doing what they want us to be doing. We do not believe that it is too easy. Every year there are hundreds of initiative petitions that are filed. Only a handful make it to the ballot, sometimes none at all. There’s no data to back up that argument.”
Simmons argued that outside influences are trying to subvert the power of the legislature.