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Ballot Initiatives Attacked in Attempt to Restrict Direct Democracy

Progress Update

  • Image of a ballot initiative being burned

Ballot Initiatives Attacked in Attempt to Restrict Direct Democracy

2022-10-26T19:21:58-05:00

As covered in several Progress Updates (Oct 22, Sep 1, Jun 7), this November’s election will be democracy-defining as election-denying candidates challenge our voting rights and the future of nonpartisan election administration. But further down the ballot, below the candidates for positions like governor and secretary of state, some voters are being asked to choose how democracy functions in their states.

This fall, Arizona and Arkansas join the ranks of states attempting to limit citizen use of the ballot initiative, a political tool that allows citizens in 21 states and the District of Columbia to put issues directly on the ballot for their fellow voters to consider. In these states, the ballot initiative is often the most effective tool for countering impacts of gerrymandering and party dominance in government. Five additional states allow citizens to vote directly on new laws or Constitutional amendments, but only when they’re placed on the ballot by the state’s legislature.

Legislatures in Arizona and Arkansas are following the lead of Missouri, Florida, South Dakota, Idaho, and other states that have tried to restrict access to the ballot initiative in recent years. Republican-led legislatures in those states have sought to limit direct democracy following ballot decisions on issues that the legislature opposed, including marijuana legalization, minimum wage increases, and restoration of voting rights to felons who complete their sentence.

Arizona

In Arizona, voters will weigh in on three initiatives that would weaken the ballot measure process:

  • Proposition 128, which would allow the state legislature to amend, defund, or repeal any ballot initiative declared unconstitutional or illegal by the Arizona Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court
  • Proposition 129, which would limit citizen-led ballot initiatives to a single subject
  • Proposition 132, which would require a 60% supermajority vote for any ballot measure on tax increases

All three measures were referred to the ballot by the state’s legislature, not by its voters. They require direct votes from citizens because they involve changes to the state’s constitution, which cannot be done by the legislature alone.

These initiatives are supported by groups including the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Goldwater Institute — all of which have historically opposed citizen-led ballot measures.

The measures are opposed by groups including the League of Women Voters, Arizona Education Association, and the Arizona Center for Economic Progress. Arizona League of Women Voters President Pinny Sheoran told the Arizona Republic that the organization is committed to direct democracy, regardless of who proposes a ballot initiative or whether the organization agrees with it politically.

“We are quite disturbed that all three of them are ways in which the power of the citizens to enact legislation through ballot initiatives is deeply curtailed,” Sheoran said. “Citizens have such a heavy lift to get something on the ballot. We don’t care what the ballot measure is, we are going to fight for the right of citizens to bring forward ballot measures.”

After decades in which both houses of the legislature have been controlled by Republicans, Arizona voters approved a minimum wage increase in 2016 and recreational marijuana in 2020, both via ballot initiative. Since then, direct democracy proponents say, the legislature has been on a mission to make sure that more reforms like them don’t pass. Stacy Pearson, a spokesperson for Will of the People Arizona, a group opposing Propositions 128, 129, and 132, summed up their concerns in The Guardian:

“We’ve seen, since minimum wage passed, a very deliberate effort to make direct democracy more difficult and more expensive. This is the knockout punch. So we’re in the last round of the boxing match. And this would be the end.”

Arkansas

The state’s motto is “let the people rule”. Yet, the Arkansas legislature seems to be pushing the state in the opposite direction with its own efforts to restrict the ballot initiative. Republicans took control of the legislature following the 2012 elections for the first time in at least two decades.

Issue 2, another legislatively-referred constitutional amendment, seeks to increase the threshold needed to pass a ballot initiative from a simple majority (50% +1 vote) to a supermajority (60% of all votes). This initiative follows a 2020 ballot measure that would have increased signature requirements for ballot initiatives and moved up the deadline for citizens to file initiative petitions with the Secretary of State. Voters rejected that measure by a 56%-44% margin.

However, the legislature passed SB614 in 2021, which made paid canvassing illegal and stipulated that anyone signing a petition to put an initiative on the ballot must be a U.S. citizen, an Arkansas resident, and not have any felonies or other “disqualifying offenses” like forgery and identity theft on their records.

Issue 2’s supporters include Arkansas Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “The constitution is sacred and it should be hard to change it. The voters should have a say in that, but I think increasing that percentage is something that we should be supportive of across the board.”

The measure’s opponents include Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Hughes and a coalition of organizations working under the umbrella of Protect AR Rights. It includes the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the immigrants’ rights group Arkansas United.

At an event announcing the formation of Protect AR Rights, Arkansas United deputy director Josh Price said that changing the vote threshold would further disenfranchise the state’s under-represented groups.

“We don’t have the most diverse representation in our state House and state Senate, so sometimes this pathway of a citizen ballot initiative is the only way that some of our minority communities can get something on the ballot that may benefit their groups,” Price said.

Gennie Daiz, founder of For AR People, is confident that Issue 2 will be defeated this fall, but said the coalition is ready to adjust its strategy to reverse the decision if the measure is approved.

“I don’t think that this coalition in particular would give up the fight,” Diaz said. “We fight for expanding access to the democratic process in the legislative process. So we’re always going to be pushing for ways to allow more people to participate in an easier manner rather than fewer people in a more restrictive manner.”

The National Picture

Two national groups, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and the Fairness Project, are providing support to those working to defend direct democracy in Arkansas and Arizona. In 2021, the Fairness Project launched the Ballot Measure Rescue Campaign, which is directing $5 million toward direct democracy protection across the country.

“What we’re seeing is red states trying to curtail this tool that citizens have used really successfully to move policies that are otherwise stuck for, usually, political reasons,” Hannah Ledford, deputy executive director and campaigns director for the Fairness Project, told the New York Times.

Earlier this summer, voters got a sneak peek at how anti-democracy initiatives like those on the ballot in Arkansas and Arizona might go: A ballot measure in South Dakota was rejected by nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters in June’s primary election. That measure had been placed on the primary ballot by the legislature so that, if approved, it would have taken effect before a vote on a citizen-led initiative on Medicaid expansion in November.

“It sends a very strong message to [the state legislature in] Pierre, which is ‘hands-off our ballot initiatives,’ and I think that this is going to serve as a strong deterrent against future efforts to attack the initiative process,” Matthew Schweich, campaign director for South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, told the state’s NewsCenter1.

Earlier this year, the Missouri state legislature attempted to pass a bill that would alter its rules for ballot initiatives. The law, which passed the state House of Representatives but did not pass the Senate, would have increased the votes needed to pass to 60% and increased the number of signatures needed for a petition to appear on the ballot from 8% of voters who cast ballots for governor in the previous general election to 10% of those voters.

The measure would have also required anyone signing an initiative petition to be an “American citizen” and added a public comment period after an initiative was filed with the Secretary of State.

In opposing the bill, Missouri’s Democratic lawmakers cited a poll conducted by Data for Progress, which showed that 84% of respondents supported ballot initiatives, including 83% of Democrats, 87% of independents, and 84% of Republicans.

Like Arkansas, South Dakota, and Arizona, the Republican-led effort in Missouri came after voters there passed marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion via ballot initiative following years of inaction on those issues by the legislature.

Marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion will be on the ballot again this year in states including Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota, and  South Dakota. There will also be ballot questions related to abortion in Michigan, California, Vermont, and Kentucky. Based on what we’ve seen in the past few years, the passage of these measures by voters could trigger another round of backlash from state legislatures.

Protecting Your Right to Ballot Initiatives

Ballot initiatives are one of the few tools that citizens have to directly take action on policy. That tool is being threatened by state legislatures across the country who are unhappy with decisions that citizens pass through the initiative process.

If you live in a state with citizen-led ballot initiatives, look for groups that are working to defend direct democracy from attacks by the state legislature. A few examples include:

At the national level, groups supporting the ballot initiative include the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and The Fairness Project.

Author: Jenna Spinelle
Published: October 26, 2022

Feature image: George Linzer, adapted from a photo by Adisak on Pixels

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Sources

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Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, “Attacks + Threats”, https://ballot.org/attacks-threats/, accessed Oct. 22, 2022

Ballotpedia, “Arizona Proposition 132, 60% Vote Requirement for Ballot Measures to Approve Taxes Amendment (2022)”, https://ballotpedia.org/Arizona_Proposition_132,_60%25_Vote_Requirement_for_Ballot_Measures_to_Approve_Taxes_Amendment_(2022), accessed Oct, 22, 2022

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