For progressives like Sarver, citizen initiatives do, in a way, allow them a chance to even the odds against Republican entrenchment. “I would say we are seeing an increase in the number of proactive, progressive initiatives in this decade,” Sarver said, “whether that’s around health, criminal justice, redistricting, and the economy, or [reforms] relevant to democracy.”
Still, among all of the causes Altic’s and Sarver’s groups are monitoring, the most prominent initiatives seem to be those with strong bipartisan support nationally—just not necessarily in state legislatures.
Facing the still-extant possibility of an Obamacare repeal by Trump and the national GOP—and just months after the success of the Medicaid-expansion referendum in Maine—voters in red states like Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska are pushing citizen initiatives to expand Medicaid themselves. Utah in particular has had a powerful pro-citizen-initiative movement over the past few years, with additional petitions for election reforms, school-budget increases, and marijuana legalization. In some cases in Utah, these petitions have garnered so much support that they’ve forced the state legislature to preemptively pass compromise laws that adopt most of the initiatives’ language. And across the country, in response to the gerrymandering that’s fueled pro-referendum energy in the first place, several petitions to change the way state and congressional redistricting work are picking up signatures.
One such campaign, in Michigan, highlights this nationwide enthusiasm. The Voters Not Politicians campaign to create an independent, citizen-led redistricting commission used 4,000 volunteers to gather over 425,000 signatures in 110 days from all 83 counties. While it now looks likely to win certification for the November ballot, it had humble beginnings. “Our initiative actually started from a Facebook post,” Katie Fahey, the group’s president, said. “I was not expecting us to end up here. I thought maybe some friends and family would hop in, and we would maybe join with a group to do something.”
But Fahey’s post ballooned in popularity, thanks to what she identifies as an energy that was “huge and prevalent across the state,” and across partisan and racial lines. “When you talked to people, they were just sick of the status quo,” Fahey said. “They don’t trust politicians. They don’t trust the political parties to actually have their best interests. In Michigan, we had the Flint water crisis, where an entire city gets poisoned by lead.”
Fahey has observed a blend of “drain-the-swamp-style” anti-establishment sentiment among other citizen-initiative advocates she’s talked to in Missouri, Ohio, and Utah. Taken together, their action at the local level could prove to be the story of the 2018 elections. In Fahey’s words: “People are just tired of waiting, and so they were ready to go and step up and get it done themselves.”