What Happens When the People Decide?

When the People Decide
Voters cast ballots for the 2020 elections at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Phil Roeder.

By Jenna Spinelle

When the People Decide

From my earliest days in journalism, I’ve always gravitated toward people who zig when everyone else zags, so to speak. The people who go against the grain and aren’t afraid to put forward a bold idea and bring people along for the ride.

It’s difficult to find people like that in traditional politics. There are too many incentives from the parties, the donors, the media, and other forces working against bold actions or innovative thinking. The reasons for that are a whole other post entirely.

However, one area that’s a treasure trove of those individuals are citizen-led ballot initiatives. In the United States, about 20 states give citizens the opportunity to propose legislation or amendments to their state’s constitution that are voted on directly by their fellow citizens.

At its best, this form of direct democracy exemplifies the “demos” in democracy. Everyday people can come together and advocate for issues they care about and take those issues directly to voters. I tell many of those stories from the past 30 years in the podcast series When the People Decide.

But like anything in politics, ballot initiatives are not perfect. They can fall victim to the same forces that corrupt candidates, parties, and other parts of government and remove the opportunity for compromise or nuance that occurs in traditional legislative politics.

New Coalitions and Opportunities

Some of the most successful ballot measure campaigns in recent memory came from situations where there was clear public support for an issue in a particular state, but the state’s legislature was not inclined or incentivized to follow the public’s support. We’ve seen this pattern with marijuana legalization, minimum wage increases, and democracy reforms like expanding voting rights and creating independent redistricting commissions.

In each instance, the push to create the ballot question, get the signatures to put it on the ballot, and get voters to approve it comes from a grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations who are working toward a common cause. Some of my favorite examples of this from When the People Decide are the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Reclaim Idaho, and Voters Not Politicians in Michigan.

Coalitions like these are designed to transcend the two party system. It takes at least a simple majority, and in some places a supermajority, to pass a ballot initiative, which means support from only one party isn’t going to cut it. Successful ballot initiatives draw people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies and draw on basic human values like fairness, access, and representation that transcend partisan divides. There’s a lot of talk about finding common ground in politics. But these examples give me hope that the way to do that is by first finding common cause.

Direct Democracy’s Darker Side

For every ballot measure that’s grassroots and citizen-focused, there is another that’s led by corporations or other powerful figures who are using the initiative as a way to deliberately circumvent the legislative process.

The most striking example of this in recent memory was California’s Proposition 22 in 2020, which sought to classify gig workers as independent contractors instead of full employees. Gig economy companies like Uber, Lyft, and Doordash spent more than $200 million to secure a “yes” vote.

Despite everything I said before about ballot measures building new coalitions, they can also lead to increased polarization among voters because they force people into simple yes/no binaries and remove the option for middle ground. For more on this line of research, I highly recommend checking out the Democracy Paradox podcast episode with direct democracy scholars Joshua Dyck and Ted Lascher, authors of the book Initiatives Without Engagement.

The ‘War on the Initiative’

Putting aside the question of whether ballot initiatives help or hurt political polarization, one thing we can say with certainty is that they’ve gotten the attention of state legislatures in recent years. Decisions to expand Medicaid, legalize marijuana, and expand voting rights run counter to what the legislature wants to do — and they don’t like it very much.

What are they doing about it? If you’ve followed other recent developments in American democracy, it might not surprise you to learn that they’re taking steps to make it more difficult for citizens to leverage the initiative process. David Daley, another journalist who covers political reform, described it as “the war on the initiative” when I spoke to him for When the People Decide.

This fall, voters in Arizona and Arkansas will decide whether to increase the threshold for initiatives to pass to 60% of the vote and other changes. As you might expect, grassroots groups like Will of the People Arizona and For AR People are forming to oppose these changes and marshal support for direct democracy.

Hope for the Future

One bright spot here is that such changes tend to be deeply unpopular among voters. Earlier this year, South Dakota voters rejected an effort to change ballot initiative rules there and other attempts have failed to pass state legislatures or been overturned by state courts.

Despite efforts to restrict the initiative, every indicator I see shows that the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. As state courts and legislatures become more antidemocratic, citizens are turning to direct democracy to push for changes that matter to them.

For more information on this effort, check out the work of The Fairness Project and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, two nationwide organizations that are working with grassroots campaigns across the country.

Jenna Spinelle is the communications specialist for Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy and host of the podcasts Democracy Works and When the People Decide

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