After months of messaging, debating, and mobilizing support around the importance of banning gerrymandering, expanding early voting, and securing equal access to elections, Senate Democrats weren’t able to pass legislation to protect voting rights at the federal level.
The effort is critical to shoring up our democratic institutions. In 2021, state legislators in 49 states introduced more than 440 bills to restrict voting, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy organization. Many of these bills succeeded: At least 19 states passed 34 laws limiting access to the ballot, more than any other year since the Brennan Center began tracking election legislation in 2011. These new laws are just one aspect of the GOP’s coordinated attack on democracy. And without federal intervention, state legislators continue to introduce bills to suppress the vote ahead of the 2022 midterms.
While much of the media and advocacy attention has focused on these suppressive efforts, missing from the conversation is another pernicious and coordinated attempt to short-circuit democracy: the increasingly aggressive campaign by Republican-dominated state legislatures to shut down the citizen-driven ballot measure process. Not taking this threat seriously means risking the loss of a vital tool in American self-governance. For over a century, in scores of states and cities, voters have been able to petition and place issues on the ballot and enact them directly into law, forcing their government to respond to their needs.
Most recently, ballot initiatives have broken legislative blockades holding back popular policies, particularly in red and purple political terrain. Since 2017, citizen-led ballot initiatives have bolstered health care coverage, resulting in the expansion of Medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah.
It’s not only health care: In 2018, voters also raised the minimum wage in Arkansas and Missouri. In 2020, voters halted abusive payday lending practices in Nebraska and approved the nation’s first ballot initiative to guarantee at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave in Colorado.
Right-wing legislators in those states gnashed their teeth, but they could not stop popular democracy. Thanks to ballot measures, 875,000 previously uninsured Americans now have health care coverage, 2.6 million Coloradans won’t be forced to choose between their income and their family, and Americans across the country have made more than an additional $20 billion in wages.
Of course, any democratic process is two-sided, and ballot measures have been occasionally used to advance corporate or conservative interests. In 2020, California voters passed a ballot measure diminishing the rights of ride-hailing and delivery drivers after being bombarded with $200 million of advertising from Uber, Lyft, and their corporate peers.
But the overall electoral pattern is clear: When voters have a chance to choose policy, even in states with majority-conservative federal delegations and state legislatures, they tend to choose progress.
And that is why ballot measures are now facing an existential, under-the-radar threat. Despite a long tradition of direct democracy in America, this avenue for policymaking is being closed off as some state legislatures try to shut down people-powered ballot measures, often in direct reaction to the success of progressive-leaning initiatives.
After Michigan voters legalized recreational marijuana, passed automatic voter registration and other voting protections, and enacted a redistricting commission at the ballot box in 2018, legislators waited only one month before passing a law requiring future ballot efforts to gather signatures from every corner of the state and register their signature collectors with the state government.
In Florida, after voters restored the voting rights of Floridians with prior felony convictions, the Legislature enacted a laundry list of new restrictions on ballot measures—including requiring advocates to pay the state for the privilege of having citizen signatures counted. This will add millions of dollars in expense to every future citizen-initiated campaign.
Some of these changes border on the absurd. For example, South Dakota legislators required all print on petitions be in 14-point font, in addition to mandating that all signatures and proposal text appear on one piece of paper, resulting in ridiculous beach-towel-size documents. These are all serious threats.
In Missouri alone, lawmakers considered 22 bills to weaken the initiative process in their last legislative session, including attempts to raise the number of signatures that would be required to bring an issue to the ballot and to raise the number of votes that would be required to win on Election Day. Perhaps not coincidentally, Missouri is also a state that has seen voters advance minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, and good government reforms via the ballot measure and over the public objections of its legislature.
Last year, there were more than 87 attempts in state capitals to prevent voter-driven campaigns from reaching the ballot. Legislators in states like South Dakota and Arkansas are trying to redefine the meaning of majority rule, proposing constitutional amendments that require 60 percent voter approval in order for an approved policy to take effect.
When asked to justify this onslaught against ballot measures, many conservative state legislators across the country return to a common refrain: that somehow the process of direct democracy is too easy to manipulate and influenced by out-of-state actors. Just recently, Missouri state Rep. Jeff Coleman made this point, saying: “What happens when outside influencers come into our state and decide that they’re going to change our constitution? They have nothing to do with our state other than the fact that they want to change what we’re doing as our citizenry in the state of Missouri.”
Oddly, these legislators have no problem receiving out-of-state campaign contributions and are not decrying lobbying by corporations headquartered out of state. The truth is that ballot measures require more participation by the residents of a given state than any other form of policymaking. Registered voters in a given state are the ones who decide on the proposed policy, sign the petitions, and vote yes or no.
Fortunately, despite all of these new hurdles, organizers and advocates continue to clear them. South Dakotans Decide Healthcare succeeded in qualifying Medicaid expansion for the ballot in 2022, making theirs the eighth state where voters will decide whether or not to expand the program for low-income residents. Across the country, dedicated citizens with clipboards are currently circulating petitions to raise the minimum wage, decriminalize marijuana, and curtail predatory lending.
Judges are also getting wise to legislative attempts to undermine this vital democratic institution and have stood with the rights of voters in Idaho, Michigan, and South Dakota in overturning some of the laws curtailing ballot measures.
As with all attacks on democracy, this is death by a thousand cuts. When it is harder to participate in democracy, fewer people will—and that exclusion lands disproportionately on voters with fewer resources.
The bottom line: Across the country, progressives are in danger of losing an important state-based tool to advance policy. It’s already slipping away. And while patchwork advancement of economic priorities may seem tedious, it is the real alternative to stalled federal-level policymaking.
If people are denied access to ballot measures, voters will lose their only guaranteed pathway to making progress—on wages, on health care, on paid leave, and on protecting voting rights themselves.