Ballot initiatives in America are under attack. In more than one-third of states where citizens can go around politicians to change the laws themselves, bills have been proposed this year to make that process harder.
This represents a dramatic spike in how many bills are being considered to make it harder for initiatives to pass, and it follows a wave of ballot measures passed in 2018 to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid, end gerrymandering, and reduce mass incarceration. You could imagine a world in which politicians would value ballot measures as an opportunity to find out what Americans think about complicated issues, as a way to remove politics from policy and give voters a direct voice. If they are really trying to represent their voters, elected officials should be grateful for a process that allows them to see where they have lost touch with their constituents.
Instead, lawmakers across the country are trying to limit peoples’ ability to have a voice. When politicians are willing to risk popular backlash to attack American values as fundamental as democracy and the peoples’ sovereignty, it’s worth asking who wins from the solution being proposed instead.
Democracy is the clear loser. So who’s winning?
The clearest winners are the lawmakers themselves.
Already insulated from public opinion by gerrymandering and voter ID laws and a campaign finance system that allow them to get reelected while ignoring the will of the majority of the voters, these officeholders see ballot measures as one of the last real checks on their power. As Americans, we prize checks and balances, but politicians who want to be able to ignore the people they are supposed to represent don’t want voters to be able to enact reforms, and they do not want to have the public’s real views exposed on issues where they differ.
Other winners, of course, are the powerful special interests.
Powerful people and corporations can make their voices heard without the need for a ballot measure. Those who can afford to hire the best lawyers and lobbyists don’t need ballot measures to get policies passed — they already have the ear of the people in power. In many cases, they clearly see ballot measures as a threat to their ability to exercise power and influence out of the public eye.
In Idaho, for example, a bill to curtail ballot measures was exposed as having been written in part by a lobbyist for the payday lending industry, presumably concerned that a successful initiative to crack down on abusive lending practices in Colorado could come to Idaho and hurt his clients’ bottom line. They know they cannot win when voters have a real conversation about what the right thing to do is, so lobbyists, special interests, and politicians try to shut us out of the process.
The Idaho example, however, also offers a hopeful note. Though the legislature passed the lobbyist-written bill, Idaho’s governor ultimately vetoed it. Politicians care about protecting their power and limiting checks on it, but many of them also care about their reputation and about getting reelected. In Idaho, citizens mobilized en masse to urge the governor to veto the bill. Protecting the right of citizens to make change at the ballot box will be a long and difficult battle, and we won’t win every fight, but shining a light on which politicians see it as a win when people lose the right to affect policy can help protect our votes.