Ballot measures across US aim to overhaul voting practices
Voters in November will decide whether to make substantial changes to election laws in more than a dozen states, where ballot measures would reshape the way elected officials are chosen, districts are drawn and campaigns are run.
The rush of ballot measures to overhaul voting and elections procedures is a new front in the war over voting rights, one that has become more heated in the four years since President Trump won the Electoral College, and the White House, while losing the popular vote.
“Since 2016, there’s been this focus on elections,” said Josh Altic, a ballot measure expert at Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks political news. “You see a potential movement trying to gain traction.”
Ballot measures in Alaska and Massachusetts would implement ranked-choice voting, in which a voter chooses his or her top three or four candidates. Candidates who finish last are eliminated in rounds, and their votes are redistributed accordingly until one candidate ends with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Maine and New York City have already implemented ranked-choice voting; in 2018, Democrat Jared Golden beat Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) after votes for minor-party candidates were redistributed. Two more ranked-choice initiatives, in North Dakota and Arkansas, failed to make the ballot this year.
Voters in Colorado will be asked to decide whether the state should join the national popular vote movement, in which a state pledges its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes nationwide. Several state legislatures have voted to join the compact, but voters have never had the chance to weigh in themselves.
California voters will be asked whether to grant the vote to people on parole and whether 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in local elections. In Mississippi, voters will be asked whether to end a Reconstruction-era practice in which a gubernatorial candidate must win a majority of legislative districts, along with the popular vote. Idaho voters will be asked to increase the number of state legislative districts.
In Virginia, the legislature has asked voters to approve a measure creating an independent redistricting commission. In Missouri, legislators want voters to repeal an independent commission approved several years ago.
Two states run by conservative legislatures — Alabama and Florida — will weigh whether to amend their constitutions to limit voting to citizens, even though noncitizens cannot vote in either place. Those measures appear aimed at ginning up voter turnout among Republicans.
Across the country, voters will be asked to decide on 116 ballot measures, constitutional amendments, referenda and initiatives. Some have been referred to voters by legislators who want to clean up founding documents; Utah will ask voters whether to change pronouns in the state constitution to non-gender-specific language. Utah and Nebraska both want to eliminate passages in their constitutions that allow slavery as a punishment for crimes, antiquated language that has not been enforced for a century or more.
Voters in Mississippi will be asked to ratify a new flag design after the state retired a flag that included a Confederate symbol. Voters in Rhode Island will be asked to change the state’s official name, dropping a reference to plantations.
Other initiatives have been paid for by special interest groups that are spending tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to pass legislation that benefits them specifically.
The most expensive fight is in California, where tech companies are fighting to override a 2019 law that defines gig workers as employees rather than independent contractors. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates have contributed a combined total of $180 million to the campaign — likely making it the second-most expensive political contest of 2020, after the battle for the White House.
“On occasion, big special interests decide it’s easier to go around the legislature and put something that is primarily and singly for themselves on the ballot,” said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento who works on ballot measures and who is working against the tech companies.
Another pricey fight is happening in Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) — an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune — is virtually single-handedly funding a ballot measure to create a graduated income tax. Pritzker has contributed $56.5 million to the campaign, while billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin has dropped $20 million into the campaign against the tax.
The push to legalize marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, a fight that has advanced through ballot initiatives in recent years, will be on the ballot in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota this year. Oregon voters will be asked to legalize psychedelic mushrooms.
Some of those measures — and issues such as a $15 minimum wage proposal in Florida, a ban on abortions after 22 weeks in Colorado, and sports betting proposals in Maryland and South Dakota — might increase turnout among voters who are deeply interested in one particular issue but who are not motivated by the presidential contest.
But researchers cast doubt on a ballot initiative’s ability to drive turnout, especially in a year when so many say they are enthusiastic and excited about voting.
“Who’s going to be turning out that wasn’t already going to vote in a presidential election? It’s the niche issues like marijuana that has the ability to do something like that. And it’s marginal,” said Craig Burnett, a political scientist at Hofstra University who studies ballot measures. “There’s a subset of people who care about that issue enough to make a special effort” to vote.
Ballot measures have become increasingly expensive in recent years. Spending on initiative campaigns topped $1 billion in both 2016 and 2018, according to Ballotpedia’s tracking, and Altic said the group has recorded $565 million spent so far this year — a number that will rise rapidly in the closing seven weeks of the race.
There are fewer measures on ballots this year than in 2018, when voters faced 155 proposals, or in 2016, when 162 measures qualified. Dozens of proposed initiatives fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, when lockdowns brought a halt to signature-gathering efforts in many states.
While some voters say they do not have time to understand myriad complex issues on the ballot every year — California’s ballot has 12 measures this year, and Colorado’s has 11 — direct democracy remains a popular avenue for driving change, especially in Western states.
“Voters like ballot initiatives,” Kaufman said. “They may complain about the number, but they like the opportunity and the option of voting on serious issues, and they take it seriously.”