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GOP targets ballot initiatives after progressive wins

GOP targets ballot initiatives after progressive wins
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Republican-controlled legislatures in almost half the states are advancing bills that would make it more difficult to pass citizen-initiated ballot measures — a backlash to the success progressive groups had in using the initiative process to advance liberal policy priorities.

In Arizona, voters have in recent years approved initiatives legalizing marijuana, raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year and raising the minimum wage.

Now, GOP legislators are pushing to raise the threshold of votes an initiative needs to win to 60 percent for most initiatives, or two-thirds of the vote for measures that propose new or higher taxes.

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State Rep. Tim Dunn (R), the sponsor of one version of the Arizona legislation, said the effort was necessary because his state had been targeted by outside interest groups seeking to buy their way onto the ballot.

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“It seems like over time we’ve had an increasing amount of outside influence coming in, starting in Arizona to set a national agenda,” Dunn said in an interview Friday. “We’re like a petri dish for outside influence.”

Legislators in Missouri passed a series of ballot initiative measures through the state House elections committee this week.

Lawmakers approved measures to increase the number of signatures a proposed amendment would need to submit, from 8 percent of voters in six of the state’s eight congressional districts to 10 percent to 15 percent in all eight districts. 

Three different bills would require ballot measures to win more than 60 percent of the vote, two-thirds of the vote, or a simple majority of all registered voters, rather than a majority of those who actually cast ballots.

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Supporters of Idaho ballot measures would be required to submit signatures representing 6 percent of registered voters in each of the state’s 35 legislative districts to qualify for the ballot, rather than the 18 required under current law.

In South Dakota, the first state that allowed direct democracy through ballot initiatives, Republican legislators passed bills to raise the threshold for passing new taxes to 60 percent and to require initiatives to go through a public comment period. Initiative petitions will be required to be printed in 14-point font.

Legislators in Arkansas and Florida also want to increase the threshold for voter approval.

Republican supporters of reining in the initiative process argue they aren’t engaged in a partisan effort and that their goal is to cut down on the number of special interest groups who use ballot measures to advance policies in their own interest.

“A lot of [voters] don’t understand the ballot initiative,” Dunn said. “We have conservative issues that get put on the books as well, so this is not necessarily partisan.”

But to critics, the revisions smack of a deeper challenge to American democratic values. 

“You’re seeing a counter to what I believe is democracy literally happening in action,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which supports progressive ballot measures. “It’s a concerted effort to undermine our democracy.”

The ballot measure once saved states, especially Western states, from the tyranny of business tycoons who controlled legislatures through campaign contributions, both legal and illegal.

A century ago, the first ballot measure were used by progressives to strip timber barons and railroad magnates of their power over state legislators.

“It was literally created to give the people a tool to fight the corporate takeover of state legislatures. There was no governance happening that was reflective of the people. And you’re seeing that happening again,” Figueredo said. “Ballot measures are a part of our democracy.”

Experts say the Republican focus on changing the rules is part of a broader effort to claw back power. Some states run by Republicans are advancing measures to cut back on absentee voting, or early voting, or to accelerate purges of inactive voters from the rolls after Democratic wins in the 2020 elections. Others are revisiting ballot measures to limit the power of their own voters.

“There have been more ballot initiatives on contentious issues over the last three cycles, so legislators are paying more attention to the process and reacting to initiatives that pass,” said Josh Altic, who studies ballot measure politics at the nonpartisan election clearinghouse Ballotpedia. “As a general rule, when legislators pay attention to the initiative process, they propose changes that make the process harder.”

Three Democratic-controlled states are taking their own steps to reform the ballot measure process, but in a dramatically different direction. Legislators in Maine and Massachusetts are advancing legislation to cap donations to ballot measure committees.

Legislators in California are pushing a bill to reverse the way referenda — the means by which voters can override legislation passed in Sacramento — are presented. Current law requires a voter to vote no on a referendum in order to veto a bill passed by the legislature. The bill before legislators this year would flip that, asking voters to affirmatively choose to veto a targeted bill.

Use of the ballot measure has been uneven over time, but in recent years progressive groups have more regularly turned to the initiative process to advance policies like minimum wage increases or increased spending on education in states where Republicans hold control over the legislature. The process itself is a reflection that most voters do not hold universal orthodoxies identical to either party’s platform, and that legislators themselves do not perfectly represent the constituents they serve.

“The very premise of the initiative process presumes a disparity between the will of the people and their state legislators,” Altic said. “The process was designed as a mechanism to challenge or at least side-step the power of state legislators.”