Voters weigh in on ballot measure limits

Constitutional amendments in a pair of states would make it harder for some ballot initiatives to become law, providing the latest tests in the power struggle between legislators and interest groups over the citizen-led initiative process. 
Employees test voting equipment at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in Miami, in advance of the 2022 midterm elections on November 8. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Arizona and Arkansas voters will consider constitutional amendments next month that would make it harder for some ballot initiatives to become law, providing the latest tests in the power struggle between legislators and interest groups over the citizen-led initiative process.

Ballot initiatives are often used to push policies that have little chance in a legislature dominated by one political party, political scientists say. In recent years, left-leaning groups have used ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage, legalize marijuana and advance other progressive priorities in Republican-controlled states.

Red state lawmakers have responded by enacting laws and proposing ballot measures that would make it harder for initiatives to qualify for the ballot or be approved by voters.

“As we’ve seen more of these progressive ballot measures win at the ballot, we’ve seen more attacks to the process itself,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group that supports ballot measure campaigns.

GOP lawmakers who back the Arkansas and Arizona amendments say they want to make sure ballot measures — particularly constitutional amendments, which, once approved, are impossible for legislators to alter — are clearly stated and win substantial majorities. They also say they do not want out-of-state groups taking advantage of the initiative process to run campaigns in their state.

“I view Issue 2 as a much-needed guardrail that will strengthen our initiative process,” said Arkansas Rep. David Ray (R), sponsor of a measure that would require ballot measures proposed by lawmakers or by citizens to pass with 60% of the vote, rather than a simple majority.

Ray said his measure would ensure there is “genuine consensus” among voters, particularly for changes to the state constitution. “It’s the bedrock, foundational document of our state, and it doesn’t need to read like a book of statutes,” he said.

Opposition to ballot measures is not necessarily partisan, experts who study ballot measures say.

“It’s typically a function of people in power trying to limit the ways that policy might get changed, especially if there’s a sense of longstanding one-party government,” said Joshua Dyck, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “It’s a consolidation of power.”

Republicans control both the legislature and governor’s office in about half of the 26 states that allow citizens to put an initiative or veto referendum on the ballot, according to online election resource Ballotpedia. Democrats control the legislature and governor’s office in about a third of those states.

Red state GOP lawmakers have in recent years tried to block or undermine voter-approved initiatives they oppose and to pass laws that make it harder to get measures on the ballot.

A 2021 Idaho law, for instance, required campaigns to collect signatures from at least 6% of voters in all 35 legislative districts, up from 6% of voters in just 18 districts. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

The number of citizen-initiated ballot measures nationwide fell from 76 in 2016 to 30 this year, according to Ballotpedia. Initiative campaign leaders say the COVID pandemic and labor shortages have driven up the cost of gathering signatures to get a measure on the ballot, said Ryan Byrne, managing editor for Ballotpedia’s ballot measures team, in an email to Pluribus News.

“Some have also cited changes to ballot measure laws that, according to the campaigns, have made the process more difficult,” Byrne said.

Lawmakers have also in recent years asked voters to approve changes to ballot measure rules.

Arizona lawmakers put three such measures on the ballot this year. One would limit citizen-initiated measures to a single subject. The second would require measures concerning tax increases to pass with 60% of the vote, rather than a simple majority. The third would allow lawmakers to amend or repeal approved ballot measures if they are later struck down by the state Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court.

Arizona Rep. Tim Dunn (R), who sponsored the tax-related measure, said that thanks to a 1992 constitutional amendment, two-thirds of Arizona lawmakers must approve bills that would raise taxes. It makes sense for ballot initiatives to have to clear a similarly high bar, he said.

Proposed changes to ballot measure rules have historically had mixed success with voters.

Floridians in 2020 rejected a measure that would have required voters to approve constitutional amendments twice. North Dakotans rejected a measure the same year that would have required initiated constitutional amendments to be either passed twice by voters or passed once by voters and once by lawmakers

South Dakotans in 2018 approved a measure requiring constitutional amendments to concern a single subject, but rejected a measure that would have required them to pass with 55% of the vote, instead of a simple majority.

This summer South Dakotans decisively rejected a measure that would have required certain ballot measures — those that would raise taxes or fees, or trigger more than $10 million in state spending over five years — to pass with 60% of the vote, rather than a simple majority.

The measure was rejected by 67% of voters even though GOP lawmakers had placed it on the June primary ballot, when more Republicans were expected to show up.

“It was an obvious attempt by them to sort of tip the scales in their favor to get it to pass, because I don’t think we had a single primary in the Democratic party in June,” said Rick Weiland, founder of Dakotans for Health, a group backing a Medicaid expansion ballot measure in South Dakota this year.

Weiland said that while his group worked to get Democrats to turn out and vote against the measure, the election result indicates Republicans voted it down, too. “I do think that’s a comment on the legislature meddling with the citizens’ initiative process,” he said.

Reid Wilson contributed to this report