Advocacy groups and citizen-led ballot initiatives are struggling to keep their campaigns going amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The grassroots movements offer advocates a rare opportunity to bypass legislatures and put their proposals directly before voters. In most states, that means collecting thousands of signatures from constituents through door-knocking, local rallies and face-to-face politicking on street corners or outside storefronts.
But social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have largely upended that process, spawning lawsuits in several states and forcing some groups to abandon their 2020 ballot initiatives altogether.
"At this moment, we’re in the critical qualification phase for ballot measures, and with stay-at-home orders and social distancing, this has really presented some challenges,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), said on a conference call with reporters Thursday.
In some states, the measures that will appear on the ballot in November are already set. In Florida, the deadline to submit signatures for ballot initiatives was Feb. 1, and six statewide measures will appear on the general election ballot.
But most state deadlines fall between May 1 and early September, said Josh Altic, who tracks ballot measures for Ballotpedia, meaning the next few weeks could decide the fates of multiple campaigns.
“It’s hard to say exactly how big the effect will be, but there are certainly a number of initiatives that would have been on the ballot that won’t be now,” Altic said.
In Missouri, a movement to legalize recreational marijuana suspended its efforts last month after organizers acknowledged that there was “no practical way” to meet the state’s May 3 deadline to collect the signatures it needs to get on the ballot in November. Missourians for a New Approach, the group leading the initiative, said it will now aim to put the measure up for a vote in 2022.
But for some initiatives, pushing their efforts back another two years isn’t an option.
Arkansas activists hoping to establish an independent redistricting commission want it in place by 2021, when states must redraw their congressional boundaries based on decennial census data. George Shelton, a spokesperson for Arkansas Voters First, the group leading the initiative, said that the campaign began collecting constituent signatures in early March, just before states started putting stay-at-home orders and other restrictions in place.
Soon after, however, it became “virtually impossible under [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC guidelines and under the governor’s guidelines to collect signatures,” Shelton said. The initiative currently faces a July 3 deadline to collect roughly 90,000 signatures, but has so far only amassed a couple hundred, according to Shelton.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting another two years,” he said. “This is something that happens once every 10 years and we feel it’s imperative that we push forward to ensure that people have fair and adequate representation.”
Arkansas Voters First joined three other plaintiffs late last month in filing a lawsuit against Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston seeking to force Little Rock to extend its signature-gathering deadline to Sept. 3, lower the number of signatures required to about 53,000 and allow petitioners to collect them electronically.
A ruling in the case could come as soon as next week, Shelton said.
Initiatives in other states are also suing for the ability to collect signatures digitally. Fair Maps Nevada, which is also backing a ballot measure to create an independent redistricting commission, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday seeking an order approving virtual signature gathering.
And in Massachusetts, the campaigns behind several ballot initiatives struck a deal with Secretary of State William Galvin that would allow them to collect a second round of 13,347 required signatures electronically.
Candidates and government officials are grappling with the larger question of how to conduct campaigns and elections in the midst of a global pandemic that has left much of the country in lockdown.
Candidates have shifted to virtual campaigning in recent months, holding town halls, rallies and fundraisers on digital platforms. More than a dozen states have postponed primary elections to avoid gatherings at polling places. And there are growing calls among advocates and officials for states to expand vote-by-mail options as an alternative to in-person voting.
But ballot initiatives face some unique challenges. In many states, deadlines, signature requirements and other regulations governing ballot initiatives are set down in state constitutions, complicating the process of changing them.
Altic said there is little appetite among state legislatures to accommodate the campaigns, in part because the measures are designed as a way for advocates and individuals to sidestep lawmakers.
“With ballot initiatives, there’s this underlying conflict between the initiative power and the state legislature,” he said. “That’s how it’s designed: It’s a process to skirt the legislature.”
“Because of that, changes to the procedure to make the initiative process easier — there’s a lot of resistance to those,” he added.
But many advocates see the ballot initiative process as a way to address issues that elected lawmakers are often unwilling to take up out of political concerns or for other reasons.
“We are all fighting to ensure that ballot measures are viable in 2020 because, in many states, they are the only tool that we have to move issues that are so critical,” said the BISC’s Fields Figueredo.
Signature-gathering challenges aren’t the only factor holding up initiatives and referendums in 2020. Some advocates see shifts in the political environment due to the coronavirus pandemic as they consider whether to move forward with their proposals.
In California, the organizers of a ballot initiative that would raise the state’s cap on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits have decided to punt the measure until the 2022 election out of concern that the outbreak could generate voter sympathy for one of the proposal’s main opponents: medical providers.
The payout limitations for medical negligence cases in California hasn’t been raised since it was established in 1975. The measure seeks to index the cap to inflation, meaning that, if passed, it would immediately jump from about $250,000 to roughly $1.2 million.
Jamie Court, the president of Consumer Watchdog, the group behind the medical negligence initiative, said the initiative has already cleared the signature hurdle, collecting about 988,000 signatures. But with the coronavirus outbreak, he said, “it’s hard to think as a patient who may be injured or knows what it means to be a victim in the medical system when we’re all victims to this pandemic.”
“There’s a lot of sympathy for medical providers right now, and that would work against us until the cloud of COVID clears,” Court said. “It really puts people on edge — makes them think in crisis mode. And that unfortunately lends credibility to our opponents at a time when we really need the public to be thinking about how inequitable it is.”
In another election year, Court said the organizers of the medical negligence initiative would likely be spending the month raising money for their campaign and preparing radio and television ads promoting the ballot measure. But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown cold water on that plan, he said.
“Everything is so uncertain and that’s a terrible environment for raising money or rounding up votes,” Court said. “Uncertainty can be exploited by the opponents of change and that’s why every major political initiative is on hold right now.”
“You can’t fight for bold new change if people are worried about whether they’re going to be dead tomorrow or have a job tomorrow or whether they’re going to be able to pay their rent,” he said.