Ballot measures can increase turnout and create change. Trying to repeal an initiative approved by voters smacks of arrogance and undermines democracy.
By Karen Hobert Flynn and Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, Opinion contributors | April 16, 2019
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested recently that the Supreme Court did not need to wade into the issue of partisan gerrymandering because so many states have passed reforms through the citizen initiative process that puts issues directly to voters. What Gorsuch left out is that only 24 states have a such a process. And in many of those states, legislatures are not only trying to make it harder to get issues on the ballot, they’re taking it upon themselves to reject what voters have approved — often by overwhelming majorities.
Citizen-initiated ballot measures have proven to be an effective tool for everyday people to advance issues that legislators too often fail to address, so the shameful attacks on the citizen initiative process by partisan politicians and wealthy special interests should not come as a surprise. In 2018, voters across the country used this vital tool to transform our democracy and fight for their communities.
From raising the minimum wage to ending gerrymandering to reforming our criminal justice system to expanding access to health care, we have witnessed strong support for citizen initiatives across the political spectrum. That’s in stark contrast to the dysfunction and polarization in Congress and in many state legislatures.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Nov. 8, 2016. (Photo: Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)
But now legislators are making it harder for voters to pass public policy via citizen-initiated statutes and/or constitutional amendments. In 2019, we have already seen over 100 proposals introduced that would change the ballot measure process; this is more than the previous two years combined. Such legislation has already been signed into law by governors in Arkansas and Utah.
The attacks on the ballot measure process are symptomatic of larger concerns about our democracy and a growing awareness that there are powerful political forces attempting to diminish the people’s voice in it. In Florida, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, and Missouri, legislators and wealthy special interest groups have launched attacks to make it harder for citizens to collect signatures to put issues on the ballot. In Michigan, after grassroots volunteers and Michiganders led several successful power-changing ballot campaigns, legislators quickly passed a bill that created more hurdles to participate in the democratic process during the lame duck session.
Politicians are undoing voter initiatives
As if discouraging participation in democracy isn’t bad enough, some politicians in Florida, Missouri, Idaho, and North Dakota are rejecting the actual outcomes the voters supported. In Missouri, Republican Gov. Mike Parson and his allies are calling for the repeal of the Clean Missouri initiative, which was approved by 62% of Missouri voters in 2018. This is an important package supported by Republicans, Democrats and independents to raise ethical standards, reduce the influence of money in politics, and prevent gerrymandering — all to ensure the state legislature is responsive to everyday Missouri voters.
Although voters in Missouri are trying to show their politicians how representative democracy works, they are not alone when it comes to having legislators who believe they know best. Politicians nationwide are attempting to subvert the will of the people. In Utah, state lawmakers passed legislation that weakened Medicaid expansion. In Washington state, both the House and Senate unanimously passed legislation that altered the policing training initiative.
In Florida, where 64% of voters approved an amendment restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens, legislators have now introduced a bill redefining certain crimes in order to deny voting eligibility to people who have served their time. They also have introduced two bills that would make it harder to participate in the ballot measure process. One increases the threshold to pass citizen initiated constitutional amendments to 66%. The other bill creates multiple changes to the signature-gathering process.
Repealing an initiative smacks of arrogance
The success of citizen initiatives demonstrates that grassroots movements can lead to long-lasting change, despite the well-funded special interest lobbyists who often prevent legislatures from acting on the very same issues. The initiative process is also an important check the people have on elected officials who won’t advance policy priorities that matter to the people.
Attempting to repeal an initiative that has already been approved by voters smacks of arrogance and is an affront to the democratic process and the countless hours spent by volunteers working to better their community. There is no doubt that ballot measures can inspire new voters to turn out and create lasting change for our communities.
The power of the ballot measure process to impact people’s lives is limitless. Citizen initiatives and direct democracy are supposed to be one of the people’s checks on our representative democracy. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in writing for the majority in the Arizona State Legislature v Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, “The Framers may not have imagined the modern initiative process … but the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power.”
Our organizations understand how critical everyday citizens are in our democracy. They deserve a seat at the policy-making table. We should be listening to their voices and addressing their concerns. Our democracy thrives when the people are active participants, and citizen initiatives are a critical tool for them to build the future they want for their communities. We must protect and expand direct democracy.
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