Kansas’s August 2022 referendum on the right to abortion was a resounding defeat for the anti-abortion state Republicans. It was the first such vote since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and left the legality of abortion up to states, leading many to speculate how similar initiatives in other states would go. Much of the attention to the Kansas vote has focused on the issue of abortion specifically—and for good reason. But the mechanism of the ballot initiative itself also has a great deal to tell us.
South Dakota’s all-Republican June 2022 primary included a referendum, Amendment C, that would have raised the winning threshold for ballot initiatives involving taxation or state funding to 60%. Essentially, it was a ballot measure designed to kill future ballot measures. It was referred by Republican legislators in a state that hasn’t sent electors to a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and it was advertised using a reliable conservative talking point—preventing tax hikes. Conventional wisdom said it was virtually guaranteed to pass.
Only it didn’t. Voters rejected Amendment C by more than a two-to-one margin. A strong opposition campaign mobilized 60,000 non-Republican voters, but as it turned out, they weren’t needed: a majority of Republican voters went against the measure. The results of Amendment C and recent ballot initiatives across multiple states highlight the disconnect between majority opinion and the legislation produced by elected representatives—revealing a path to enacting people-first policies regardless of who holds office.
Partisan political discussions make the policies we need seem unrealistic, even radically left, but in fact many of them are widely popular across party affiliation. Nationally, large majorities support a public healthcare option, living minimum wage, legal access to abortion, reasonable gun control, and immediate climate action. Where available, ballot initiatives are a method of bypassing partisan divides and turning majority opinion into policy.
Voting on policy
Citizen-initiated ballot measures (also called popular referendums or propositions) are laws, statutes, or constitutional amendments that are proposed by unelected citizens who gather signatures to put them to a vote. Legislatively referred initiatives (sometimes called referendums) look similar to voters but are placed on the ballot by elected representatives. Currently, 24 states and countless more municipalities have some form of citizen-initiated ballot process on the books, while all states except Delaware have some form of legislatively referred initiative.
South Dakota became the first state to codify initiated ballots in 1898, followed by more than a dozen states in following decades. The initial push came from the People’s Party, or Populists, a short-lived third party that emerged in the Midwest and South from a coalition of farmers and workers. The Populists organized around opposition to the political control wielded by elites, specifically banks, industry barons, railroad companies, and agricultural corporations. Both major parties were essentially controlled by the wealthy, the Populists argued, so working people needed more democratic decision-making processes. In the years after their inception, ballot initiatives were subject to intense pushback and cooptation, ensuring that they would not have the democratizing impact that was intended.
The inequality that led to the call for initiatives in the nineteenth century is just as grave today. Since the 1970s, the US economy has redistributed some $50 trillion from working-class and poor families to the wealthiest one percent. By 2016, the richest 10% of US Americans owned 77% of national wealth, and the bottom half owned just 1%. This wealth gap has widened since then and is far more extreme by race and geography. This trend has continued during Democratic as well as Republican leadership.
The wealthiest corporations and individuals have long been able to access politicians through campaign donations, lobbyists, elite social networks, and the sway they hold over the economy. This has enabled the super-rich to push tax cuts and other policies that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else through legislative processes, regardless of which party is in control. While the country’s problems are typically framed by each party as the fault of the other, the reality is that leadership from both parties is far more beholden to private interests than to their constituents.
Initiatives themselves are politically neutral and the policies they generate by no means all progressive. California’s infamous “Proposition 13” of 1978 undercut property taxes, contributing to the inequality, housing, and education crises in that state today. Each state’s rules are different, and California in particular has become famous for a convoluted and unproductive ballot system. And ballot campaigns across states have become increasingly expensive – far from direct democracy, the average winning state ballot campaign now costs around $10 million, and is surrounded by an organizational ecology of professional campaign strategists, communication specialists, consultants, lawyers, and signature-gathering firms.
Yet at their core, ballot initiatives are about persuading people to agreement on policy, as opposed to relying on politicians to make decisions on our behalf. The Left largely neglected ballot initiatives for generations, but in the past decade, labor unions, advocacy groups, and grassroots campaigns in multiple states have put progressive ballot initiatives before voters, and the results speak for themselves. Economically redistributive measures like raising minimum wages, expanding low-income access to medical care, and taxing the wealthy to provide public services have passed with more than a 75% success rate, often by significant margins. Ballot initiatives hold the possibility of bringing working class people together and contributing to an all-sided transformational strategy.
In 2016, a majority of Arizonans voted for Trump and also approved a ballot initiative increasing the minimum wage. In Arkansas, a state that has voted for the Republican presidential candidate by well over 60% in the last three elections, voters in that same time-period approved initiatives to raise the minimum wage twice, by 66 and 68%. Republican presidential candidates have carried every single county in Oklahoma for more than two decades, yet in 2020, that state’s voters used a ballot initiative to expand access to Medicaid. In Florida, where a majority voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, voters in 2018 approved an initiative re-enfranchising people who had been convicted of felonies other than murder and sexual offenses (although effective rollback ensured that these new voters did not have an impact on the 2020 election).
The dynamic of voters approving egalitarian policies their representatives oppose is not only a Republican phenomenon. In Colorado, progressives had for years tried and failed to institute paid family and medical leave through the all-Democratic state government. When advocates turned to a ballot measure in 2020, it passed by over 57% of the vote. In 2018, Washington DC voted on a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees from $3.33 to $15 an hour. The initiative passed but was repealed by an all-Democrat city council, with the support of the Democratic mayor. Organizers immediately launched a veto referendum campaign designed to undo the repeal and reinstate the raised minimum wage, but a Superior Court judge killed the effort on procedural grounds.
In recent years, ballot measures have led to consequential policy wins including abolishing slavery (in prisons), expanding Medicaid, curbing predatory loan practices, ending no-knock warrants, and raising taxes on the wealthy to fund public programs. These campaigns have been overwhelmingly successful in red, blue, and purple states alike.
Minimum wage campaigns have been particularly effective. In the past quarter century, ballot initiatives to raise state minimum wages have had a 100% success rate, winning with an average 60% of the vote. Since 2014, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Washington have all increased their minimum wage by popular vote. More than 60% of US Americans support a $15 minimum wage and have for years, yet few politicians take meaningful steps toward enacting it. Ballot initiatives are decided by voters, not politicians, and the outcomes are tellingly different.
The fight over ballot initiatives
As unions and grassroots groups have begun using ballot initiatives to pass people-first policies, the ballot process itself has come under attack. South Dakota’s Amendment C vote was framed as a protection against tax hikes, but it was a direct attempt to undermine the last institution whereby voters can overrule representatives. The amendment would have raised the winning threshold for future ballot initiatives involving taxation or state spending over $10 million to 60%. It gave the legislature the power to determine how much taxation and spending a ballot measure would require—and with that, the power to kill initiatives.
Sneaky attempts like this are also telling. Ballot initiatives are widely popular (including in states that don’t have them), and direct attacks risk appearing too undemocratic. Opponents prefer to chip away at initiative accessibility and authority in ways that can be framed as something other than blatant attacks on voter rights. Across the country, we are seeing an escalation of veiled attacks like Amendment C. Another tactic is proposing “single issue” rules—which seem innocuous enough but in practice provide avenues for courts to invalidate any initiative by arguing that it impacts more than one thing—as well as constantly changing filing rules and regulations.
Amendment C was not just about ballot initiatives in the abstract, it was specifically designed to undercut two November ballot initiatives in South Dakota to expand access to Medicaid. Medicaid is widely popular with Republican as well as Democratic voters, and ballot votes to expand Medicaid in other Republican states have been highly successful. Rather than acquiesce to majority rule, South Dakota legislators sought to stack the deck against the November ballots. But the move backfired. Healthcare advocates mobilized thousands of Democrats and independents to the Republican primaries to defeat Amendment C, and Republican voters appeared to see through the cynical attempt by their own representatives to undermine voters’ choice. A supermajority victory over Republicans in South Dakota would be unthinkable in a candidate election, but ballot initiatives can unite voters around common interests and the general common sense that majorities of voters should be able to enact policies they agree on.
Ballot initiatives as strategy
Coherent strategy to win a country that puts people before profit involves militant labor organizing, mass protest, and the construction of community power. Ballot initiatives can work hand-in-hand with these fronts because they do not rely on politicians keeping their promises, but instead work toward directly codifying new laws and statutes. Anyone who wants systemic change knows that sooner or later we must reach people who are apparently on the other side of the ideological divide. When it comes to parties, this appears near impossible, but when it comes to specific policies, there is more agreement that it would seem.
That is not to say ballot initiatives are a silver bullet. Like all political campaigns, they are labor- and resource-intensive, and often require difficult compromises and coalitional work. The high costs are being significantly inflated by mounting legislative and judicial attacks on the process. In addition to securing funding, those who are interested in running a ballot campaign must begin months or years in advance and navigate increasingly complex rules and regulations. If passed, new policies then require implementation and enforcement, often by hostile state bureaucracies.
The right can and does use ballot initiatives too, particularly legislatively referred measures. But the clear majority support for more egalitarian policies often means that rightwing initiatives rely on misdirecting and stacking the deck against voters. Putting ballot votes on Republican primaries is one example.
In Arizona, a November citizen’s initiative to defend voting rights will appear alongside several legislatively referred initiatives to undercut voters’ rights, making it difficult for voters to know which they’re choosing. While ballot initiatives can be used for any political cause, anti-democratic tactics and attempts to dismantle the ballot process itself demonstrate that reactionaries know their policies are not supported by the majority. Even underhanded tactics cannot guarantee victory, as we saw in South Dakota. The August 2 Kansas referendum to ban abortion was specifically designed to minimize pro-abortion turnout and confuse these voters into checking the wrong box, yet it still failed by almost 60%.
In the face of a failing electoral system, challenges pale in comparison to the scope of what is possible through the popular vote. Prohibitive costs can be mitigated if grassroots groups are able to mobilize members to directly participate in the process without detracting from community work, and that same mass support can reinforce an initiative’s legitimacy and defend its implementation it after it passes at the ballot. And the process of organizing for an initiative presents opportunities for groups on the left to build bridges to constituencies they might not normally come into friendly contact with around a shared political goal.
More than a century ago, ballot initiatives were met with harsh backlash precisely because they offered an alternative to undemocratic legislative processes. Today, following a decade of labor and grassroots movements utilizing ballot initiatives to keep resources and decision-making power in the hands of everyday people, the ballot process has again come under attack, with over 200 bills across states in 2021 and 2022 alone designed to curtail or kill the initiative process.
As we face the urgent need for real action on abortion, climate, cost of living, student debt, and more, now is the time to defend this popular decision-making process and use it to pass policies that materially improve the lives of poor and working people—and open space to organize for more.
Featured image: Protest for $15 minimum wage, 2013, New York City. Photo by Michael Fleshman, license CC BY-NC 2.0