"We the People" image from US Constitution

In the 2022 midterms, as in the past several elections, Americans in states across the country made their voices heard on issues through citizen-led ballot measures — and the results were often in opposition to the desires of state legislatures.

Votes on citizen-led ballot initiatives on abortion rights followed a previous trend that saw increases in the minimum wage and expansion of Medicaid, actions that were favored by majorities of Americans but resisted by partisan state legislatures. However, this year’s election brought the defeat of several marijuana-related initiatives and successful attempts by state legislatures to restrict the initiative process itself.

Reproductive Rights Take Center Stage

By far, the most anticipated ballot measures in this year’s election took up the issue of abortion. Following rejection by Kansas voters in August of a proposed amendment to the state constitution to deny the right of abortion, citizens in four other states made a similar choice on Election Day.

Voters in Michigan approved Proposal 3, which adds an amendment to the state constitution protecting the right to reproductive freedom, defined as “the right to make and effectuate decisions about all matters relating to pregnancy, including but not limited to prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management, and infertility care.”

Proposal 3 passed by a margin of 56-43%. The organization Reproductive Freedom for All led the effort in support of the initiative and raised $45.7 million in contributions.

“Today, the people of Michigan voted to restore the reproductive rights they’ve had for 50 years. Proposal 3’s passage marks an historic victory for abortion access in our state and in our country — and Michigan has paved the way for future efforts to restore the rights and protections of Roe v. Wade nationwide,” Darci McConnell, the organization’s communications director, told the Detroit Free Press.

Constitutional amendments on reproductive rights also passed in California and Vermont, while Kentucky voters rejected an amendment that sought to exclude the right to an abortion. Taken together, these outcomes could signal more ballot measures in 2024. A July 2022 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 61% of Americans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, signaling the kind of public support a ballot measure needs to pass.

Kelly Hall, executive director of The Fairness Project, a group that supports grassroots ballot measures, told Stateline that the organization is confident abortion can be a winning issue on the ballot, even in traditionally conservative states, as the Kansas and Kentucky votes proved.

“Our experience in using ballot measures in conservative states is that when we’re able to take the partisan labels off of certain issues, we can win even in conservative parts of the country, and that’s what we saw happen this year with abortion and reproductive rights,” Hall said.

Mixed Progress on Electoral, Social Issues

Outside of abortion, the picture on ballot measures that address weaknesses in the electoral system and popular public issues was mixed.

The midterms were generally good for political reform, with the biggest win coming in Nevada. Voters there approved Question 3, an initiative that would establish open top-five primaries and ranked-choice voting. The citizen-initiated measure passed with a margin of 54%-47%, but it must pass again in 2024 to take effect.

If it does pass, advocates say it will remake elections for Nevada’s state and federal candidates by limiting party dominance in the primaries and reducing the likelihood that an extremist from the right or the left would be elected.

“To see the voters of Nevada support a change in how we do our elections that … will provide more voice and choice to Nevadans was very gratifying and rewarding,” Mike Draper of Nevada Voters First told the Nevada Independent. “This was just the start. We have a lot more conversations to have.”

In another win for voting access, Connecticut approved a ballot question on amending the state’s constitution to allow for no-excuse early voting. This approval from voters paves the way for the state’s legislature to take up the amendment. Connecticut is currently one of only five states that does not have an early voting law.

However, the progress did not extend to every voting-related measure on the ballot. Nebraska voters approved an initiative that would require a valid photo ID to vote. The measure passed by a wide margin, with more than 65% of the vote.

Support for the measure was led by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who sought to bypass the state’s legislature by putting the question directly to voters. Importantly, the measure did not specify how the new requirement should be implemented. Most Americans support photo ID requirements, but it is often how such laws are executed that lead to accusations of voter suppression. The legislature will be responsible for crafting the voter ID law, which voting rights advocacy groups plan to oppose. The group Nebraskans for Free and Fair Elections issued the following statement to Nebraska Public Media on election night:

“Nebraskans should expect the same politicians who spent so much time and money to sell this vague bill of goods to now work to impose one of the most restrictive voter ID mandates in the country. As we begin the next phase of opposition to this new burden on voters, we challenge our fellow Nebraskans to remain informed, active, and engaged.”

Results on marijuana legalization, another popular ballot initiative area, were also mixed this year. Measures on recreational marijuana passed in Maryland and Missouri but failed in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

“This is a tougher issue to succeed on in an off year where you just don’t have on the same kind of turnout from younger voters, where this is especially popular, as you do in a presidential year,” Alex Kreit, Director of the Center on Addiction Law & Policy and Assistant Professor of Law at Northern Kentucky University, told TIME.

Direct Democracy on the Ballot

As The American Leader previously reported, Arizona and Arkansas voters faced ballot questions about how the initiative process should function in those states. Again, the results were mixed.

Arkansas voters rejected the effort to change the threshold needed for a ballot initiative to pass to a 60% supermajority from a 50% +1 simple majority. The pro-democracy groups arguing against the initiative did their part to warn voters about the dangers of making it more difficult to express their will through ballot measures.

For AR People, one of the groups doing that work, summed up the effort this way:

“The triumph is the result of months of planning, coalition building, and harnessing the power of Arkansans statewide, who generously gave thousands of hours of their time to protect a right that Arkansans have enjoyed for more than 100 years. In total, grassroots volunteers with Protect AR Rights sent 200,000 text messages, made 150,000 phone calls, knocked 30,000 doors and reached 500,000 Arkansans across social media to warn voters on the dangers of Issue 2.”

In Arizona, the other state with a major challenge to direct democracy this fall, the results were mixed. The state’s voters had three questions related to ballot measures to decide in the midterms, all referred to voters by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Proposition 128 was defeated, meaning that the legislature’s ability to amend or repeal ballot measures remains limited. However, both Proposition 129 and Proposition 132, which place new requirements on citizen-led initiatives, passed. Arizona’s ballot measures must now be limited to a single subject and any initiative about taxes must receive 60% of the vote to pass.

Voters roundly rejected Proposition 128 with more than 63% of the vote. The margins for the other two measures were much smaller — 55% for Proposition 129 and just over 50% for Proposition 132. The difference caught the attention of those who worked to protect direct democracy.

Speaking about Proposition 132, Stacy Pearson, a spokesperson for Will of the People Arizona, the campaign against the three initiative-related measures, told The Guardian, “The irony is that, with such a slim majority, just over 30,000 votes, voters gave away their authority to have a simple majority make decisions.” .

The new restrictions in Arizona will go into effect for the 2024 election, which could hinder efforts to advance a ballot initiative that would enshrine the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. However, there’s still uncertainty about how the concept of a “single subject” will be interpreted and implemented.

“It’s not really clear how that will play out in practice, and initiative backers worry that this will lead to the courts invalidating all sorts of initiatives that are really aimed at one central topic simply because they touch on multiple provisions of the law,” Arizona political reporter Hank Stephenson told KJZZ public radio.

Knowing Your Right to Ballot Initiatives

Ballot initiatives are one of the few tools that citizens have to take direct action on policy. It is an essential tool that enables citizens to make their voices heard when a legislature fails to respond to their expressed interests. Currently, however, only 26 states provide a process for a citizen-led ballot measure. The terminology and processes differ from state to state.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and Ballotpedia offer helpful pages for those interested in learning about direct democracy in their state:

NCSL – Initiative and Referendum States: Identifies which states offer a mechanism for citizens to make their voices heard. Includes US Virgin Islands.

NCSL – Initiatives and Referendum Processes: Summarizes specifics of each state’s mechanisms for direct democracy.

Ballotpedia – States without initiative or referendum: Lists the states that offer neither initiative or referendum, and includes a chart that identifies what powers are available to the people in the states that do offer such a mechanism.

Ballotpedia – Laws governing ballot measures: Provides links to laws governing ballot measures in each state that offers them. Includes Washington, DC.

Author: Jenna Spinelle
Published: December 6, 2022

Feature image: National Archives

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Clara Hendrickson, “Proposal 3: Michigan voters embrace abortion rights amendment,” Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com/story/news/politics/elections/2022/11/09/proposal-3-michigan-results/69599515007/, accessed Nov. 29, 2022

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Christine Vetal, “Abortion Advocates Aim to Outflank Lawmakers Using 2024 Ballot Measures,” Stateline, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2022/11/23/buoyed-by-midterm-successes-abortion-rights-advocates-prepare-2024-ballot-measures, accessed Nov. 29, 2022

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Tabitha Mueller, “Indy Explains: Nevada passed the ranked-choice voting, open primary ballot question. What happens next?” The Nevada Independent, https://thenevadaindependent.com/article/indy-explains-nevada-passed-the-ranked-choice-voting-open-primary-ballot-question-what-happens-next, accessed Dec. 1, 2022

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William Padmore, “Bring your ID the next time you head to the polls: Nebraskans approve requiring ID to vote,” Nebraska Public Media, https://nebraskapublicmedia.org/en/news/news-articles/bring-your-id-next-time-you-head-to-the-polls-nebraskans-approve-requiring-id-to-vote/, accessed Dec. 1, 2022

Solcyre Burga, “Where Marijuana Had a Terrible Night in the 2022 Midterm Elections,” TIME, https://time.com/6231201/marijuana-legal-elections-2022/, accessed Dec. 1, 2022.

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Gennie Diaz, “Issue 2 FAILS: the people keep their power,” For AR People, https://forarpeople.org/issue-2-fails-the-people-keep-their-power/, accessed Dec. 1, 2022

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Ballotpedia, “Arizona Proposition 128, Legislative Changes to Ballot Initiatives with Invalid Provisions Amendment (2022)”, https://ballotpedia.org/Arizona_Proposition_128,_Legislative_Changes_to_Ballot_Initiatives_with_Invalid_Provisions_Amendment_(2022), accessed Dec. 1, 2022

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Lauren Gilger, “A close look at how some of Arizona’s propositions fared with voters this year,” KJZZ, https://kjzz.org/content/1827115/closer-look-how-some-arizonas-propositions-fared-voters-year, accessed Dec. 2, 2022

Nicole Willcoxon, Lydia Saad, “Eight in 10 Americans Favor Early Voting, Photo ID Laws”, Gallup, Oct 14, 2022, https://news.gallup.com/poll/403052/eight-americans-favor-early-voting-photo-laws.aspx, accessed Dec 5, 2022

Monmouth University, “Public Supports Both Early Voting And Requiring Photo ID to Vote”, Jun 21, 2021, https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/monmouthpoll_us_062121/, accessed Dec 5, 2022

ACLU, “Oppose Voter ID Legislation – Fact Sheet”, Aug 2021, https://www.aclu.org/fact-sheet/oppose-voter-id-legislation-fact-sheet, accessed Dec 5, 2022

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