The growing threat to ballot initiatives

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A woman drops a ballot into a drop box, casting her vote during Maryland's primary election, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Baltimore.  (Julio Cortez/AP)
A woman drops a ballot into a drop box, casting her vote during Maryland's primary election, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

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Important ballot measures are at play in the midterms.

In some states, voters are being asked to consider limiting their own right to put citizen-sponsored initiatives on future ballots.

“These are states where the Republicans are often in fairly dominant control, and the only way that progressive, liberal voters could actually institute policies is through a ballot measure," Louis Jacobson says.

Various state legislatures are also trying to reduce constituents' ability to make changes in their states.

"This is a part of an effort to restrict the ability of the people to make decisions on their lives," Chris Melody Fields Figueredo says.

Today, On Point: The growing threat to ballot initiatives.


Neil Volz, deputy director at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRCC). (@Volzie)

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), an organization which implements a national progressive strategy to analyze and support the ballot measure landscape. (@Fieldsy)

Josh Visnaw, project manager for VoteFlare, a voter-monitoring and empowerment tool at Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Interest Technology Lab.

Interview Highlights

Where potential changes are being made to how citizens can impact their policy in their own states?

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo: "We are seeing ballot measures about ballot measures. In 2017, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, my organization, was tracking 33 bills that would make some change to the process. Fast forward to 2021, we saw 146 bills in 33 states. This last legislative session, in 2022, we saw 108 measures, bills that would make some change. Now, some of those are before voters in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, as you mentioned, and Colorado.

"And this is what we are seeing, is the undermining of the will of the people. Ballot measures give us an opportunity to co-govern with our representatives in government. And they give us an opportunity to experiment and re-imagine and whatever we dream about what our democracy can and should be.

"And now we are seeing some politicians, some special interests try to rewrite the rules to make it harder for we, the people, to take these issues before our fellow citizens. And make changes on critically important issues like restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, like raising the minimum wage, like abortion that is on the ballot in five states this year."

On abuse of power in our court system

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo: "What we are seeing is, even in our courts, abuse of power and really partisan rules rigging. And that's why it's so important. And going back to Florida, you know, we are seeing this happen more and more. That in states after voters have approved initiatives, legislatures are refusing to implement this. This has happened with minimum wage again in Florida, in several states around Medicaid expansion. So if we had free and fair courts, that would be one question. But that isn't the reality in many states."

On the ballot initiative process across 50 states

Josh Visnaw: "Unfortunately, there's not a direct and easy answer to that question. I think as you dig into what states have going on and the variety of ballot initiatives that are out there, what we learn is it's extremely complex and it varies state by state. A state like Oklahoma has some of the more restrictive rules against making a ballot initiative, the ability to appear on a ballot and get enacted. So in Oklahoma, you need to collect signatures. And it only can happen over 90 days, which is one of the more restrictive processes in the country. So it really depends on the state. And that's why it does require, I think, a heightened awareness of the ballot initiative process and how complex it is."

On political polarization today

Josh Visnaw: "Unfortunately, that statistic, in combination with the variety of voter suppression legislation that has passed and put forth the last two years. It all tracks well with this anti-democracy movement at large that is really strengthening. And it's only strengthening. And I think that is extremely problematic when a process like ballot initiatives gives normal, ordinary Americans the opportunity to enact social change that they feel is not being met by their state legislature.

"And the fact that states are going above and beyond to kind of disrupt the process to make it harder is very hypocritical. You take a state like South Dakota. What South Dakota has done is they've implemented a very obscure requirement for their petition at large. So it's called ... advocates refer to it as a beach towel, where literally the petition is the size of a beach towel."

On efforts to suppress the right to vote

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo: "This is happening in Republican GOP-controlled state legislatures, where they have seen, quote-unquote, progressive issues like raising the minimum wage, like Medicaid expansion, like Josh talked about, like raising revenue for public education, like returning citizens the right to vote. These are traditionally progressive issues that have been blocked in state legislatures, but that is what the majority of citizens want. This is going to limit the power and the will of the people to make those changes."

On how ballot initiatives enact change

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo: "At one point, ALEC, the American legislative Exchange Council, had this on their website, as an agenda to limit direct democracy. The Republican State Legislative Council had this similar. So I mean, there have been at points in the last couple of years, where we have seen a concerted effort. And if this is happening in multiple states at a given time when the language looks almost similar, you have to absolutely think that there is a coordinated effort happening across the country to limit this important tool."

Josh Visnaw: "I like to try to be a little more hopeful in terms of talking about the state of Michigan that that was mentioned earlier, because I think there is a pathway. There's a pathway. To see how ballot initiatives at large can enact change. And I want to focus on that more, because I think Michigan's a great example, where in 2018 you saw this organizing around anti gerrymandering and an independent commission to redraw the lines. And that brought in a lot more support than just one political party. And so I think that part of the conversation needs to be directed around the hopefulness around ballot initiatives.

"Of course, there's going to be difficulties with some of the dark money that floods in, to make it really complicated. But there are a variety of checks and balances that we have in place for that ballot initiative process. But I think looking at a state like Michigan, that in 2018 was able to pass a same day voter registration on top of legalizing marijuana, on top of appointing an independent commission to redraw lines. That has momentum.

"And to where we stand now, where the ballot initiatives that are in Michigan on Tuesday, are to protect reproductive freedoms, to add to voting rights, and to address transparency in terms of what elected officials can do before they announce that they want to run for office. So I think that is the hopeful tone that I'd like to kind of direct. In terms of where ballot initiatives can counteract in states that are often powerless because of the direction of parties and their agendas."

On how to maintain a healthy democracy

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo: "What gives me hope is what we've seen over the last several years. We see that these issues, when we bring them before our fellow citizens, our communities, they actually transcend party lines. I mean, if you think about Kansas, right, in August when they revoked that abortion ban. Not only was it 59%, the highest vote getter in the state, it transcended party lines.

"They got more votes than the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates. So that actually does give me hope. We see this time and time again. That these issues, they transcend partisan lines. They give the people the ability and the power to make really important transformational changes. Like Amendment four in Florida, which you started the program with, that really allow us to tackle big issues like a Jim Crow law. In Florida, that gives me hope. That reinvigorates me to believe that when we put the power in the people, when we talk to our communities, we have the ability to really change our lives. And that is what makes a democracy thrive."

This program aired on November 7, 2022.


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Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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