Progressives cheered last year when voters in several red states approved left-leaning ballot initiatives.
Floridians voted to raise the minimum wage to $15. South Dakotans voted to legalize medical and recreational pot. Missourians voted to expand Medicaid to adults who earn under $18,000 a year. Arizonans voted to tax the rich to fund public schools.
But this year, Republican lawmakers in all those states—plus Idaho, Oklahoma, Utah and others—are trying to undermine such voter-approved measures and to make it harder for future ballot initiatives to pass. At stake is the power to make state laws.
Attacks on the initiative process have escalated, said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that in 2020 backed successful cannabis legalization campaigns in Montana and South Dakota.
“You’re seeing the types of changes become more aggressive,” he said, “and you’re seeing, I think, greater support among Republican legislators.”
The fight over ballot measures stems, to some extent, from arguments over who best represents the will of the people. While Democrats and initiative sponsors say Republicans are trying to silence voters, GOP lawmakers counter that they were elected to represent voters through a more deliberative process.
Republicans also say they want to reduce the rising number of initiatives and the influence of out-of-state groups.
“The issue with initiative petitions all over the country—it’s outside influences, outside of Missouri, that are coming in and influencing state policy,” said state Rep. John Simmons, a Republican who serves on the House elections committee. “We know they’re spending a lot of money.”
“To me, it’s an end-around from the federalist system that we have, it’s an end-around to the checks and balances system,” Simmons added. “It’s us, the legislature, that needs to decide and do these things. And if not, then we get voted out.”
Some Democrats, meanwhile, want to make it easier for voters to get their ideas on the ballot. Missouri state Rep. Peter Merideth, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, has for years put forward a bill that would allow initiative campaigns to gather signatures electronically.
“That seems like the obvious thing we should be doing, to make this process simpler and more accessible for people,” he said.
There’s always been tension between initiative backers and lawmakers in the 24 states that allow voters to petition to put proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot, election experts say.
Ballot measures tend to be used by groups that lack power in state government, said Daniel Smith, chair of the University of Florida’s political science department. “The animus towards ballot measures and direct democracy is not a partisan issue,” he said, noting that when Democrats are in control, they’re just as likely to resist initiatives they don’t like.
“It’s about who controls the reins of power in a state capital,” Smith said. “And those forces don’t like the challenge to their institutional control.”
But some initiative sponsors say there are connections between Republican bills restricting ballot initiatives and other GOP attacks on the ballot box, such as new laws that tighten voting rules and former President Donald Trump’s false claim that he won the 2020 election.
“Respect for precedent, and respecting the will of the people, and honoring elections—all of these norms have been challenged,” Schweich said. Republicans may be more willing to restrict citizen initiatives these days, he said. “They’re emboldened by you-know-who.”
Progressives Turn to the Ballot
Citizen initiative measures have ticked up in recent years. In 2016, 76 such measures made it onto ballots, the most since 2006, according to Josh Altic, a project director for Ballotpedia, an online election encyclopedia. The number dipped to 43 in 2020, likely because the COVID-19 pandemic made it harder for campaigners to collect the signatures needed to get measures on ballots, Altic said.
Republicans control both the legislature and governor’s office in 14 of the states that allow citizen initiatives. Democrats control eight states, and the parties split control over the remaining two.
Tension over citizen initiatives appears to be highest in Republican-controlled states where voters have approved left-leaning measures. Initiative backers say those victories prove lawmakers aren’t listening to voters.
“In a deep-red state like Idaho, when an initiative succeeds, it succeeds with Republican votes as well as Democratic votes,” said Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, a group that campaigned for a successful 2018 Medicaid expansion initiative.
“It really is a case of entrenched legislators and special interest groups … being against the electorate,” Mayville said. “What’s happening is that these initiatives are revealing how out-of-touch these political establishments are, and they don’t like that, because it undermines their legitimacy.”
Initiative sponsors also say their success shows latent support for Democratic ideas in states where, thanks to gerrymandering or political culture, it’s hard for Democrats to win seats in the legislature.
“It’s really hard for Democrats to get elected in South Dakota. That’s not a secret,” said Rick Weiland, co-founder of Dakotans for Health, an advocacy group trying to get Medicaid expansion on South Dakota’s 2022 ballot. “But these ballot measures don’t have a political party assigned to them. They’re just issues.”
Republican lawmakers, however, say their own electoral victories prove that their constituents are conservative. And they’ve had few qualms about trying to undermine voter-approved measures that they oppose.
In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem told the head of the state highway patrol to sue to block the recreational marijuana amendment—the suit argues that the amendment was unconstitutional—and tried unsuccessfully to delay medical marijuana sales.
In Florida, GOP lawmakers have proposed exempting inmates, people with felony convictions and people under 21 from the minimum wage increase. After Floridians voted in 2018 to allow people with certain felony convictions to vote, Republican lawmakers passed a law restricting those new voting rights.
Arizona state Sen. J.D. Mesnard, a Republican, has proposed exempting business earnings reported as personal income from the 3.5% additional tax on high earners that voters approved last year.
“It was sold as something that would not impact small businesses,” Mesnard said of the initiative. “But it very much does.”
Supporters disagree. The education-funding initiative affects wealthy business owners, not mom-and-pop shops and corner stores, said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Who they’re really defending is their millionaire donors,” he said of Republican lawmakers.
In Missouri, the Republican-controlled House voted not to fund the Medicaid expansion that voters approved.
“We don’t want to make more people dependent on more government,” Simmons said. He said House Republicans would prefer to spend Medicaid expansion dollars on aid for adults with developmental disabilities, mental health care and school transportation.
Simmons questioned whether Missourians really want to expand Medicaid. He noted that a fraction of voters approved the measure—just over 676,000 of 4.3 million registered voters—and that supporters mostly lived in urban areas.
Merideth blamed the low turnout on Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to put the measure on the August primary ballot, which attracts fewer voters than the November general election.
“They know as well as we do,” Merideth said of Republicans, “that if the turnout had been higher, the vote would have been even more in our favor.”
Parson opposed Medicaid expansion, but after the initiative passed, he said that he’d implement it. "The people of the state of Missouri voted that in, so we're going to have to deal with it and implement it," he told reporters at a news conference after the primary. "That was the will of the voters."
It’s not clear what will happen if the Missouri Senate agrees with the House and sends Parson a budget that doesn’t fund Medicaid expansion. Thanks to the ballot initiative, about 230,000 more Missourians could be eligible for the program later this year.
Hospitals and doctors’ offices may be able to bill the state for care provided to newly eligible people, no matter what the state budget says, said Dave Dillon, vice president of public and media relations for the Missouri Hospital Association.
“There’s a fundamental, constitutional question of whether a voter-approved constitutional amendment that is adopted can compel lawmakers to fund that program,” Dillon said. “And I don’t really know, and I don’t think that there’s a consensus on what the answer to that will be.”
Changing the Rules of the Game
Republican lawmakers in several states also are considering bills or ballot measures that would make it harder to win a citizen initiative campaign.
Some lawmakers have proposed stricter rules for getting initiatives on ballots. A Utah law signed by Republican Gov. Spencer Cox last month, for instance, requires signature-gatherers to wear badges, campaigns to pay signature-gatherers hourly and petitions to clearly state any tax increases, among other changes.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, two weeks ago signed a law that requires campaigns to collect signatures from at least 6% of voters in all 35 state legislative districts. Previously, campaigns had to collect signatures from at least 6% of voters in at least 18 districts.
“Idaho has an important interest in ensuring that our ballots are not cluttered with initiatives that have not demonstrated sufficient grassroots support,” Little argued in a letter to lawmakers. The law “has the laudable goal of ensuring that initiatives have a minimum level of support throughout all of Idaho before they are placed on the ballot,” he wrote.
Citizen initiative sponsors say the new rules merely will make campaigns more expensive. “This bill basically hands the initiative process over to well-funded interest groups,” Reclaim Idaho’s Mayville said of the new law, “and it actually takes the initiative process away from citizens.”
Sponsors are more worried about lawmakers’ efforts to raise the share of votes that initiatives need to pass. Lawmakers in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota have proposed requiring initiatives to win more than a simple majority, according to Ballotpedia.
Supporters say there should be a higher bar for approval, particularly for initiatives that would change the state constitution or be difficult to modify later.
Arizona state Rep. Tim Dunn, a Republican, has sponsored a resolution that would require measures to gain 55% of the vote. “If it’s popular with the state, it’ll still pass,” he said.
Under the Arizona constitution, Dunn noted, 75% of lawmakers must approve changes to laws created via ballot initiatives. He also echoed Simmons’ concerns about out-of-state activists. “They try to use Arizona as a petri dish for testing things that they’re trying to do nationwide,” he said.
A South Dakota resolution would require initiatives to win 60% of votes if the proposal would cost state taxpayers at least $10 million over five years. Lawmakers put the resolution on the June 2022 primary ballot. If approved, the higher vote requirement could apply to Dakotans for Health’s Medicaid expansion initiative.
The resolution and its timing have infuriated initiative backers in the state. Dakotans for Health has sued to try to get the resolution moved to the November ballot. “It’s devious, and it’s wrong,” Weiland said, “and I hope the Supreme Court sees it that way, and let’s have at least a fair fight in November.”
Republican state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a sponsor of the resolution, told the Argus Leader in March that it was important to have “safeguards in place for the taxpayers” and acknowledged that the resolution was put on the primary ballot to get ahead of the Medicaid expansion vote.
Initiative backers are countering lawmakers’ proposed changes to voting rules with even more initiatives.
Reclaim Idaho has filed an initiative that would eliminate geographic quotas for signature-gatherers. The Arizona Education Association and its partners are mulling a measure that would roll back recent changes to initiative rules.
“The legislature keeps changing the rules on initiatives, making them harder and harder for the public to organize behind,” Thomas said. “And I’m thinking what’s probably going to have to happen is we’re going to have to rewrite all that, and we’re going to have to have an initiative on the initiative process.”