National conservative groups, meanwhile, seem poised to play defense, setting up a battle of outsiders on state playing fields. In March, Republican-linked politicos launched the Center for Conservative Initiatives in Washington, D.C., to counter the liberal ballot measures they anticipate will arrive in record numbers nationwide in 2016.
“Liberal groups have been forced to spend heavily on ballot initiatives in an effort to circumvent elected representatives because in states around the country the public has overwhelmingly rejected their out-of-touch candidates and messages,” the Center’s leader, Matt Walter, said in an email.
The push from outsiders to pass pet policies via the ballot has occurred before, on everything from land conservation in North Dakota to how to cage chickens in California, sometimes leading to big-money fights between corporations, advocacy groups and others.
“There’s this perception out there that the initiative process is all about the little guy,” said Jennie Bowser, a consultant who for many years studied ballot measures for the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “But the truth of the matter is that it’s a big business. It’s really well organized, and it’s really well funded. And it is very, very rarely a group of local citizens who get together and try to make a difference.”
* * *
In 2014, when a Republican wave gave conservatives more U.S. Senate seats and governors’ mansions, left-leaning activists still managed to notch victories for the minimum wage, gun control, and marijuana legalization through ballot measures in Nebraska, South Dakota, Illinois, Arkansas, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia.
In 2015, they followed with wins for campaign-finance reform in Seattle and Maine.
Those successes, as well as the chance to draw more left-leaning voters to the polls, are encouraging liberal activists to push hard on the 2016 ballot.
This year, national liberal groups are especially focused on issues that prove popular in polls but that politicians have been loath to work on, such as gun control and marijuana legalization. Republicans, who generally dislike both ideas, control 30 state legislatures.
“These are issues that voters have said are very important to them in previous elections, yet nothing has changed,” said Justine Sarver, the director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which helps coordinate liberal ballot efforts.
Her group, based in Washington, D.C., plans to use 2016 to push back on conservative state legislatures but hasn’t yet announced which 2016 initiative campaigns it will aid. Though it does not disclose its donors, the group has been listed as a beneficiary of the Democracy Alliance, a network of deep-pocketed Democratic contributors including financier George Soros and San Francisco hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer. (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds. A complete list of Center for Public Integrity funders is found here.)