Republicans control a record number of state legislative chambers across the country, effectively sidelining any hopes progressives have of advancing an agenda.
In response, liberals are turning to ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, enact gun control, strengthen environmental protections and pursue other progressive goals that would be impossible to advance in GOP-controlled legislatures.
“As more and more states are controlled by Republicans, you see more of these progressive measures getting on the ballot through initiatives,” said Josh Altic, a researcher who tracks ballot measures for the nonpartisan Lucy Burns Institute.
Those hoping to advance a liberal agenda have few other avenues after midterm elections in 2010 and 2014 handed Republicans control of an unprecedented number of state legislative chambers.
Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion in only eight states.
Republicans, by contrast, control 68 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers across the country. A 69th chamber, Nebraska’s nominally nonpartisan unicameral legislature, is in practice dominated by Republicans.
In Maine, supporters of raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour gathered enough signatures to qualify a ballot measure this year after Gov. Paul LePage (R) vetoed a smaller wage hike. In Nevada, voters will decide whether to expand background checks on gun purchases, over the objection of Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and the GOP-controlled legislature.
In Colorado, environmental groups are collecting signatures for ballot measures that would more tightly regulate the process of oil extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In Washington, progressives frustrated by a Republican-controlled state Senate have secured ballot spots for a proposed carbon emission tax, a minimum wage increase and stricter gun controls.
Even in states where Democrats have political power, such as in California, activists have turned to ballot measures to speed their agenda.
California voters will be asked to weigh in on 17 measures this year, including proposals to raise taxes on wealthy individuals, raise taxes on cigarettes and abolish the death penalty — all issues the legislature has been slow to take up.
“If the legislature won’t act on your issue and you’re in a state that has the initiative process, then put it on the ballot,” said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied trends in ballot measures.
Progressive groups say the push for ballot measures reflects pent-up frustrations on the left with political gridlock across the country.
“At federal and state levels, for everyday people, the legislative gridlock, nothing is happening in our government that people feel like is progress,” said Justine Sarver, who heads the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a group that serves as a strategy clearinghouse for progressive causes. “People are fed up with the level of corporate power that they’re seeing in their government and their representation.”
The rush of liberal ballot issues is something of a reversal from the last several decades, when conservatives used the initiative process to pass limits on taxes, implement term limits for state legislators, roll back regulations and push contentious social issues.
In 2004, conservatives managed to place bans on same-sex marriage on ballots in 11 states. Republicans hoped those measures would help President George W. Bush’s reelection bid by attracting social conservatives to the polls in swing states like Michigan, Ohio and Oregon. Subsequent studies questioned whether the measures actually boosted turnout among social conservatives. Bush won Ohio, but he lost Michigan and Oregon. All 11 measures banning same-sex marriage passed.
“There were a lot of conservative measures maybe 15, 20 years ago. The conservative movement was using these to enact tax restrictions, taxpayer protections, term limits,” Altic said. “What we’ve seen is a lot more progressive issues coming up on the ballots.”
In response to the growing trend of progressive ballot measures, some states have moved to tighten rules governing initiatives. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed legislation in June that would require ballot initiative supporters to collect the necessary signatures within a 180-day window.
Legislators in Maine are trying to amend the state constitution to require initiative supporters to collect a certain percentage of signatures from both of the state’s congressional districts. A bill passed in 2015 requires signature gatherers to reside in Maine.
California legislators increased the cost of filing a ballot initiative from $200 to $2,000 last year. The state also required initiative campaigns to disclose more information about its donors. Nevada, Colorado and Arizona have all tightened requirements in recent years, too.
But in most states, the threshold for ballot access is falling. Many states tie signature requirements to the total number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election, and low voter turnout in 2014 means initiative supporters must collect fewer signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot.
In California, the number of signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot declined more than 27 percent because of low turnout; thresholds declined 45 percent in Nevada and more than 20 percent each in Ohio, Oklahoma and Wyoming.