Democracy Is on the Ballot

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Voters enter the Hamilton County Board of Elections on the first day of early voting on October 10, 2018, in Cincinnati.


Democracy itself is on the ballot this fall, as voters consider not just candidates, but an unprecedented number of ballot initiatives that seek to protect voting rights and rein in special interests, gerrymandering, and big money.

Voters also face mounting challenges to direct democracy by state legislators who have chosen to ignore or overrule popularly approved ballot measures, and who have moved in some cases to weaken or block the initiative process altogether. At least 33 states mulled 190 different proposals to change the ballot measure rules this year, including bills that would boost the number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot, for example, or increase the percentage of votes needed for enactment.

This push-and-pull reflects something of a vicious cycle in states where voters see their legislators as out of touch and indifferent, either because of gerrymandering, corporate contributions, or both. Voters respond by bypassing the legislature entirely through ballot initiatives, which are permitted in 24 states. Legislators respond by seeking literally to silence voters, rigging the rules still further. It’s part of a larger state-level assault on democracy norms, driven largely by the GOP, that includes efforts to criminalize public protests, and consolidate power via questionable maneuvers.

“The people want more power and control, and ballot measures are a way to achieve that when politicians are not being responsive,” says Dan Krassner, political director at the anti-corruption group RepresentUs, which is helping lead the movement for democracy reforms via ballot initiative. “Politicians and special interests typically hate the initiative process because the people are able to take matters into their own hands—no politicians required.”

Krassner maintains that voters “are standing up and winning” in a power struggle that he characterizes as “the people versus the politicians.” Of 157 statewide measures on the ballot this fall nationwide, 21 involve election-related policy issues like political money, ethics, gerrymandering, and voting rights.

Colorado, Michigan, and Utah will consider initiatives to place the drawing of district lines in the hands of an independent commission, emulating successful redistricting commissions already in effect in Arizona and California. Ohio already approved a congressional redistricting commission via ballot initiative in May.

Missouri is considering a ballot initiative that would both overhaul the redistricting process and tighten up campaign-finance limits and lobbying laws. Voters in North Dakota, New Mexico, and South Dakota will decide on ballot initiatives to establish independent commissions to oversee ethics. Maryland and Michigan will consider same-day voter registration. A Florida initiative would restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who have served their time.

But some of the initiatives on the ballot this fall, including voter-ID proposals referred to the ballot by GOP state legislators in Arkansas and North Carolina, would move in the opposite direction by erecting barriers to democratic engagement. And in some states, reform advocates have won initiative fights only to watch legislatures overrule, sue, block, or sabotage them.

In Maine, voters approved a ballot initiative in 2016 to adopt so-called ranked choice, or instant-runoff voting, which allows voters to choose more than one candidate and rank them in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters’ second-choice candidates are then tabulated, and the process continues until a winner is declared. But the law was blocked by legal challenges, amid stiff opposition from the legislature and from Governor Paul LePage. Maine voters came back to mount a second ballot initiative to approve ranked-choice voting in June.

South Dakota similarly approved an anti-corruption ballot initiative to toughen up campaign-finance and lobbying regulations in 2016, only to see it foiled. The Republican-controlled legislature flat-out repealed the referendum, approving a weaker ethics package instead.

Now South Dakota voters are back with another initiative on the November ballot dubbed “Amendment W” that would put a government accountability board in charge of overseeing stricter ethics and political money laws, introduced as a constitutional amendment so the legislature can’t overturn it.

The state legislature has retaliated with a string of new rules erecting barriers to ballot initiatives, including tighter deadlines and elaborate new paperwork mandates for those gathering signatures. Lawmakers also referred several measures to the November ballot to curtail the initiative process itself, including a ban on out-of-state contributions to ballot questions, and requirements that constitutional amendments be approved only if they receive a 55 percent supermajority, and stick to a “single subject”—a rule that experts say is hopelessly subjective.

“We see this as a coordinated effort,” said Dana Laurent, director of strategic initiatives at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, on a conference call organized by the Campaign Legal Center to discuss ballot initiatives this month. The Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes conservative model legislation for the states, approved a resolution recommending that legislatures make it harder for ballot initiatives to qualify and pass as early as 2006.

Lawmakers who steamroll citizen-approved ballot initiatives, of course, are taking a political risk. They are placing themselves on the record at odds with a majority of voters. On Election Day, ballot initiatives won’t be the only way voters can make their voices heard. They will also get to decide whether lawmakers who oppose democracy reforms, and the democratic process itself, deserve to remain in office.

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