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Losing Control in Legislatures, Democrats Shift Focus to Ballots

To further their causes, Democrats are bypassing lawmakers and turning to voters.

A measure to raise the minimum wage is on the ballot in Washington state.
From California to Maine, voters will be faced with dozens of ballot measures this fall, ranging from instant-runoff voting to pharmaceutical regulation. But ballot initiatives aren’t just about the issues. They are also used to help get out the vote. In recent cycles, progressive groups have looked to topics such as minimum-wage increases and marijuana legalization to help drive voter turnout.

The fact is that there are few other avenues for Democrats. Republicans dominate Congress and control big majorities in most state legislatures. “People are recognizing that their legislatures aren’t helping them on issues that they care about, so they’re going directly to the ballot,” says Kellie Dupree, director of programs for the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Not to be outdone, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) has set up the Center for Conservative Initiatives. “It was created early in 2015 in response to a very well-thought-out, very well-coordinated effort by Democrats and leftist groups to gain access to the ballot,” says RSLC President Matt Walter.

The new center helped defeat two education funding measures that were on the Mississippi ballot last November. But this year, Walter says, it will “largely be playing defense” as the center develops its own strategies and funding levels. Eventually, he adds, look for the group to back a raft of conservative measures.

In the meantime, progressives are doing everything they can to further their causes. Minimum-wage increases will again be prominently featured on ballots, while a half-dozen states will likely cast votes on marijuana.

Of course, legislatures aren’t sitting idly by, either. There are some issues that legislators are almost endemically allergic to, such as campaign finance regulation and sending redistricting responsibilities to an independent commission. When it comes to policy questions, advocates find that initiatives let them work their way around political branches that may be unfavorable. “The legislature doesn’t like people passing things through the initiative process,” says Craig Burnett, an expert on ballot measures at Hofstra University. “If you’re a legislator, you think lawmaking power should be preserved within the legislature itself.”

That line of thinking is one reason why numerous states have passed laws to limit access to the ballot over the past decade or so. “Legislatures are increasingly looking for ways to dampen these [initiatives],” says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a pro-pot legalization group. “We marijuana reformers might not have voter initiatives available to us in 2018 or 2020 or 2022.”

In 2016, however, anyone with adequate funding for an initiative should have an unusually easy time getting an idea on the ballot. Why? Initiative campaigns generally have to collect a number of signatures that is equal to a percentage of the votes cast in the last election. In 2014, turnout was the lowest it’s been since World War II. “It will certainly be a pretty busy ballot year,” says Dupree of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. 

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