A funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box this year. Though grassroots referendums and initiatives have been on the wane for two decades, 73 have been approved for ballots so far in the 26 states that allow them. That’s still well below the 1996 peak of 92 measures, but it’s the highest number since 2006 and almost 50 percent more than in 2012.
Why the spike? A big reason, says Josh Altic of Ballotpedia, is that the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot in many states is based on voter turnout in the previous statewide election. And turnout in 2014 was the lowest since World War II.
In California, for example, activists needed the signatures of just under 366,000 registered voters, 27 percent fewer than in 2014, to propose changes to state law. California, the hothouse of citizen action, will have 17 ballot initiatives this year, versus 4 in 2014 and 13 in 2012. That doesn’t sit well with my View colleague Jonathan Bernstein, who believes elected representatives, not the moneyed interests behind many ballot measures, should make laws.
Here’s what I find interesting: When voters get thoroughly fed up with government and stay home on Election Day, they’re making it easier for activists to gain access to the ballot in the next election. Since initiatives and referendums generally result in higher voter turnout — boosting it by 3 percent to 4.5 percent in presidential-election years, and as much as 9 percent in midterm contests, according to one study — activists may find it harder to repeat this year’s success in the next cycle.
For now, though, the beneficiaries of 2014’s abysmal turnout are left-leaning groups. With Republicans now in control of 33 state legislatures, and complete control of governorships and legislatures in 30 states, liberals’ frustration runs high. They›ve turned to citizen initiatives as an outlet.
The evidence is seen in both the increase and nature of November’s crop of initiatives. The bulk of them advocate liberal causes, ranging from minimum-wage increases … to higher taxes and gun control. (Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by Michael R. Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, is financing some of the gun-control measures.)
In years past, conservative causes, including tax cuts, term limits and spending restrictions, led the ballot-initiative pack. California’s Proposition 13 in 1978 set off a wave of tax-cutting initiatives in other states for many years, and social measures, like [one in Ohio in] 2004, were a national trend. The Ohio vote turned out social conservatives in such force that it probably handed President George W. Bush the state’s electoral votes that year, helping to cement his re-election.
More recently, however, proposals of one sort or another to raise taxes are popular, possibly signaling the end of tax-cut fever. “We’re noticing a shift toward progressive issues and away from conservative ideas like tax cuts,” says Altic, who runs a ballot-measure project at Ballotpedia. “And we see a correlation with the increase in Republican-controlled state governments.”
Tax increases are on the ballots of a few deep-red states, such as Louisiana’s measure to disallow federal income-tax deductibility and Oklahoma’s higher sales-tax question.
Elsewhere, California is, not surprisingly, among the 11 other states asking if voters want higher taxes. A measure there would increase personal taxes on incomes above $250,000 a year. Colorado asks if voters want to raise cigarette taxes. Oregon asks about raising corporate income taxes, while a Washington state measure proposes a tax on carbon emissions. …
Five states would raise the minimum wage. Four would tighten gun controls. One, Colorado, would create an additional 10 percent income tax to finance a universal health-care system.
Pushback by business groups, sometimes pre-emptively with litigation or [media] ads to keep measures off state ballots, has made it more costly for citizen initiatives. Business opposition also tends to dampen donor interest in financing future measures. An attempt to get an anti-fracking question on the ballot in Colorado, for example, failed last month when it didn’t attract enough voter signatures to qualify, possibly because the oil industry waged a $13 million media battle to stop it.
In several states, billionaires Charles and David Koch are playing ballot-initiative defense. A South Dakota measure would require disclosure of donors to campaigns and advocacy groups, limit lobbyists’ gifts to elected officials and provide taxpayer funds to candidates. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity is spending heavily to quash it.
Such tactics force activists to choose their fights more carefully. Companies that specialize in signature gathering last year charged between $4 and $6 a signature in California, Ballotpedia says. That means it costs at least $1.5 million just to have a shot at getting on the ballot. Media campaigns to win over voters can cost millions more, especially if the Koch brothers or other big donors are on the other side.
That isn’t necessarily bad if a ballot initiative would impose new costs on the private sector, interfere with market forces or require companies to change the way they conduct their business. As states have learned the hard way, popular referendums can have deleterious unintended consequences.
Ballot measures will always be used as an outlet and a way of self-correcting for ideological pendulum swings. No one designed the process this way, but the cycle of voter frustration, followed by low turnout, increased one-party control and more citizen activism is like an automatic refresher in democracy.