BY REID WILSON
In November, 64 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing former felons to regain their right to vote. Three weeks later, a Republican state representative introduced legislation that would require constitutional amendments to earn 67 percent of the vote to pass.
In Missouri, voters passed measures to raise the minimum wage, legalize medical marijuana and take legislative redistricting out of the hands of legislators. A month later, state House Republicans introduced a bill to nearly double the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot.
In Idaho, 60 percent of voters approved an initiative to expand Medicaid to cover low-income residents. Last week, a Republican state senator introduced legislation to increase both the number and geographic spread of signatures required to qualify an initiative.
Republican legislators in states across the country have introduced dozens of bills that would make significant changes to the initiative and referendum process, tightening rules and raising requirements after their voters approved progressive proposals that legislators opposed or refused to take up.
Critics of the proposals say they are a Republican end run around the direct democracy process, meant to stifle popular progressive policies before they get to the ballot.
“This is, combined with what we saw after the success of many of these ballot initiatives in 2018, state legislatures undermining the will of the people,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, who runs the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “Rather than listen to the will of the people, elected officials are undermining the will of the people.”
Conservative groups such as the Republican State Leadership Committee and the American Legislative Exchange Council have advocated for tightening ballot rules.
And some Democrats have supported similar measures in states such as Oregon and Washington, where low signature requirements have led to crowded ballots.
Fields said her group was watching about 90 bills around the country that would tighten ballot access.
The nonpartisan political website Ballotpedia is tracking about 140 pieces of legislation introduced in 31 states related to ballot measures, though some of those bills would loosen requirements.
Some of the Republicans behind this year’s bills say they are necessary to curb the influence of big-money groups that increasingly fund some of the most expensive ballot measure campaigns across the country.
In Arizona, voters rejected an initiative that would have required the state to generate 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources, which made the ballot with the help of millions of dollars from California billionaire Tom Steyer.
After that measure, state Sen. Vince Leach (R) introduced a bill regulating who could collect signatures for a ballot initiative and giving counties more time to inspect signatures once they have been turned in.
“It’s pretty clear to see that over the last six years, we’ve had any number of initiatives that have started from outside of the state of Arizona,” Leach said in an interview. “We need to protect one of the most precious things we have, and that’s the ability to go to the ballot and vote.”
Leach said he does not oppose the initiative process but that the legislature has a responsibility to guard the rights of its own citizens to determine the state’s direction.
“The citizens have a right to initiate laws and not only initiate laws but veto laws we pass. All that’s good. My effort is not to slow that down. I don’t want to take that opportunity or that responsibility away from the people,” Leach said. “It just needs to be fine-tuned.”
Other legislators said easy access to the ballot has led to a raft of ill-considered public policy that does not face the same scrutiny as legislation reviewed and scored by trained legal analysts.
In Arkansas, the state constitution now runs more than 100 pages, thanks in part to a bevy of recent voter-approved amendments.
“In the last seven elections, we’ve actually changed our constitution 20 times. We’re averaging three changes every other year,” said Mat Pitsch, a Republican state senator in Arkansas. “Things that normally are voted on by elected representatives were making their way through constitutional ballot measures.”
Pitsch authored a bill that would increase penalties on those who forge signatures on petitions and shift responsibility for approving measures for the ballot from the state attorney general to the state board of elections. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signed his bill earlier this year.
Some liberal states are also considering changes that would take power away from voters. In California, the legislature will debate a bill to allow some local governments to issue bonds without a popular vote; currently, those governments must ask voters for approval before issuing the bonds.
The tradition of direct democracy in America is older than the Republic itself.
Massachusetts held its first statewide referendum in 1778. Most states that allow citizens to place legislation on the ballot adopted the practice during the Progressive Era in the early 1900s, in part to fight the influence of major corporations in the timber, railroad and oil industries.
Today, 27 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of direct democracy, either through citizen-initiated propositions and constitutional amendments or through ballot measures authored by the legislature that then go to voters for approval or rejection.
Conservative groups, especially anti-tax organizations, used ballot measures to limit states’ abilities to levy new taxes in the last several decades, beginning with California’s Proposition 13, which passed in 1978.
More recently, liberal groups have increasingly turned to ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, expand health care coverage and protect union rights — especially in states where Republicans won control of legislatures after the 2010 midterm elections.
Ballot measures have become a booming political business. Supporters and opponents spent more than $1 billion on propositions put before voters in each of the last three even-numbered election years. Several propositions in California generated nearly $100 million in spending in 2018.