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Lawmakers Eye Changes to Ballot Measures -- Passed and Future

Legislators are seeking to roll back some of the high-profile ballot measures that voters approved in November. They also want to make it harder for initiatives to pass in the future.

Michigan capitol1
The Michigan Capitol. Lawmakers in the state last month passed legislation making it more difficult to collect signatures for initiatives to qualify for the ballot.
Ballot measures have become a popular way to enact new policies -- from minimum wage hikes and legalized marijuana to abortion restrictions and ethics reforms.

But voter-approved measures are meeting more pushback.

Republican legislators in several states are fighting ballot measures on two fronts: As was the case following the 2016 election, they are trying to overturn provisions of some laws that voters just passed in November. They are also seeking legislative changes that would make it harder for ballot measures to pass in the future.

"Lawmakers are undermining the will of their constituents by unraveling these voter-approved changes and attacking the ballot measure process," says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which promotes progressive ballot measures.

Progressives in particular have sought in recent years to push ideas through the initiative process that couldn't win approval through legislatures, such as minimum wage increases and the creation of independent redistricting commissions.

"Since the direct initiative is a vehicle through which voters can enact policies that the legislature or governor may not have wanted, it makes sense that politicians would want to make it relatively difficult to pass measures," says Craig Burnett, a political scientist at Hofstra University who studies ballot measures. "When high-profile measures pass over the objection of lawmakers, it is not surprising to me to find that additional states would try to adopt policies that limit the ability of ballot measures to succeed."


How States Are Limiting the Ballot Measure Process

Just after Christmas, outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed legislation that will make it more difficult to collect signatures for initiatives to qualify for the ballot.

The new law requires organizers to collect no more than 15 percent of their signatures from any one of the state's 14 congressional districts. In effect, they won't be able to rely on collecting signatures from voters packed into densely populated metropolitan areas. The law also requires signature collectors to register as paid or volunteer workers.

Groups like the League of Women Voters and Right to Life of Michigan argue that the requirements will make petition drives much more complicated and difficult to pull off. But supporters say the new law will bring more transparency to the process and make it harder for out-of-state interest groups to present themselves as citizen-led.

Similar efforts to put procedural hurdles in the way of initiative sponsors have passed in multiple states in recent years. This year, legislators are also pursuing a simpler strategy for limiting the power of ballot measures: raising the percentage of the vote needed for initiatives to pass.

In Florida, for instance, ballot measures -- which are all constitutional amendments in the state -- already need 60 percent of the vote to be adopted. Amendment 4, which restored voting fights for ex-felons, passed in November with 64.55 percent of the vote. Florida's legislative session begins in March, but a bill has already been pre-filed that would raise the threshold to 66 percent.

Missouri legislators are also considering a 66 percent threshold. In November, voters approved a medical marijuana legalization measure and one known as Clean Missouri, which put new restrictions on lobbying and campaign finance and took primary redistricting authority out of the hands of legislators. Those measures passed with 65.59 and 62 percent of the vote, respectively.

Ohio lawmakers are mulling over a bill that would not only require 60 percent of the vote for constitutional amendments but also would move up the deadline for initiative sponsors to gather signatures (from July to April of election years) and require them to collect sufficient signatures within a 180-day window. 

“We are trying to make sure that our constitution is not for sale and making sure that outside groups cannot buy their way into our constitution,” Sarah LaTourette, assistant Republican leader in the Ohio House, told reporters in November. “But at the same time, we’re trying to make sure that citizens’ voices continue to be heard.”

Politicians often complain that ballot measures are being funded by out-of-state donors or powerful interest groups that may have hoodwinked voters by using misleading language. Ballot measures are a blunt instrument -- requiring a binary yes-or-no response -- and aren't forced to jostle for funds against other proposals the way ordinary legislation does.

"All we have is the vote, and it's an up or down vote," says Burnett, the Hofstra professor. "It does open that door for politicians to say that this was a misleading proposal and, while we want to respect the will of the people, it's not clear that they understood that the proposal is not feasible."


Undoing Laws Passed by Voters

In the past, legislators have sued to block ballot measures or delayed their funding or implementation. That's still happening. Florida officials, from GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis on down, have talked about delaying implementation of Amendment 4.

But lawmakers have also become more blatant over the past couple of election cycles in seeking outright to overturn measures that had popular support.

Missouri legislators, for instance, are considering a proposal that would overturn the portion of the Clean Missouri amendment that takes redistricting powers away from the legislature and hands them to a new state demographer.

Last month, Utah legislators met in special session to rewrite a medical marijuana initiative that had just been approved by voters. House Speaker Greg Hughes and other legislators described it as a necessary rewrite to address issues with the drafting of the bill and public safety concerns. But some patient advocates saw the move as weakening the newly passed law.

This year, Utah legislators will seek to change some provisions of the Medicaid expansion approved by midterm voters. Republican state Rep. Paul Ray says the expansion will siphon needed funding from other health programs.

"We're not going to repeal it because we respect the will of the voters, but we're going to go in and fix it," Ray says. "We're not going to take it away, but we're going to put in [spending] caps."

Before qualified measures to raise the minimum wage and mandate paid sick leave could be put before voters, Michigan lawmakers approved the language of the measures in September, heading off a popular vote. Passing the measures themselves made it easier for the legislature to amend the laws, which they promptly did during a lame-duck legislative session in November -- weakening them both.

In North Dakota, lawmakers are challenging the implementation of an ethics measure that voters approved in November. It creates an ethics commission while also putting limits on lobbyists, gifts and campaign finance. They are now considering a proposal that would make it harder for future ballot initiatives to pass, while also making certain that ideas they don't like can't make it into law.

If the legislation passes, initiated constitutional amendments that win voter approval would then have to be approved by the next two legislatures. That means even if voters approve an initiative, it could take five years before the law would take effect.

"Politicians," says Burnett, "seem to be quite happy to say they intend to subvert what has been passed by the people."

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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