American Voters Are Turning to Direct Democracy

In many states, the most important policy changes this year won’t come from legislation, but from ballot initiatives.

Mark Thiessen / AP / Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock / Steve Harvey / Unsplash / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

American democracy is in trouble—and that’s expert opinion.

According to The Economist’s annual Democracy Index report, the United States in 2017 qualified as a “flawed democracy” for the second year running, which indicates citizens’ deepening distrust of the country’s electoral system and its politicians, among other issues. Other recent analyses have sounded alarm bells, too. Congressional gridlock is worsening. Partisan polarization is increasing. The “big sort”—the geographic self-segregation of like-minded Americans—has distorted representation. So has rampant gerrymandering. As a result of both kinds of distortion, many politicians across the country do not necessarily speak with the voice of their constituents, at both the federal and state levels.

But faced with these new problems, many voters are turning to old solutions. Through citizen-led ballot measures, voters in many states can use the power of direct democracy to bypass state legislatures and create new laws. These measures have been instrumental in recent years in pushing forward major legislation on health care, election reform, drugs, and other policy areas that have hit an impasse in statehouses. In 2018, these initiatives—and efforts by legislatures to stop or negotiate them—will be critical factors in determining who really controls government, and just exactly how it works.

2016 provides a useful baseline for understanding the relationship between ballot initiatives and the state of democracy. “Overall, the total number of statewide ballot measures, including those put on the ballot by state legislatures, has been declining pretty consistently over the last decade and a half,” Josh Altic, the director of the ballot-initiatives project at Ballotpedia, an online political encyclopedia, said. “The number of citizen initiatives has been decreasing since 2006 along with them. But in 2016, we kind of had this turnaround, and all of a sudden there was an undeniable increase in the interest and the number of those initiatives.”

That year, the number of citizen initiatives that made state ballots (71) was more than double the total amount from 2014. That’s despite 2016 following the long-term trend of shrinking ballot measures overall—which has been driven mostly by a precipitous decline in the number of constitutional amendments proposed by legislatures. The 71 initiatives represent a high-water mark in elections over the past decade—meaning that even as state legislatures steadily put fewer and fewer constitutional amendments and state statutes up for a vote, direct democracy (in some ways) still had a banner year in 2016.

One reason for that relative success is procedural. Many states’ minimum-signature requirements for petitions are based on a percentage of the number of overall votes in the last election. That means that lower voter turnout in one election makes it easier to get petitions approved in the next election. 2016 was ripe for citizen reforms, in part, because in 2014, overall turnout across the country was the lowest in seven decades.

But there could be other factors at work here, too. Perhaps in connection to the previous election’s record-low turnout, voters did not trust their elected officials to get the job done, and thus turned to direct democracy. “People were kind of fed up with either gridlock or opposition in state legislatures,” Altic explained. “You also have the narrative of the swing towards Republican control over state legislatures since 2010. There’s obviously been a big shift in that direction, so you see a lot of progressive citizen initiatives. That’s how you get these things done if you don’t have the seats in the legislature.”

The kinds of ballot initiatives that were certified in 2016—especially those that eventually passed that November—provide a snapshot of which policies were animating American political discourse at the time. They also show where a bipartisan consensus among voters on a specific policy wasn’t matched by members of the legislature. Marijuana decriminalization and legalization initiatives saw major nationwide success, reflecting ongoing shifts among Republican voters toward support for legalization. Several states also voted to increase the minimum wage, and statewide health-care and gun-control measures also passed.

The broad success of citizen initiatives two years ago did not, however, change state or federal gridlock, and many voters’ faith in democracy has only frayed since Donald Trump became president: Nearly 40 percent of voters in a March SurveyMonkey poll indicated they’ve given up on democracy. So far, that disillusionment hasn’t translated to more ballot initiatives in 2018. We’re starting out with a much lower than average number at this point,” Altic said. While many more measures will be certified between now and November, through April 10 Ballotpedia identified only 68 nationwide, versus an expected 97. Of those certified measures, 15 were citizen-initiated.

But this decrease doesn’t necessarily mean that the energy for pushing citizen initiatives has died down. To the contrary, the lagging pace may indicate just how powerful these measures have become in modern American politics. In the last two years, 11 states have rendered 2016’s measures mostly symbolic, since legislators were allowed by law to amend or delay passed initiatives. Republican-led legislatures in other places are looking to pass laws to emulate those 11 states, and that could mean there will be fewer initiatives this year and in future elections.

“The ballot-measure process is under attack,” Justine Sarver, the executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said. “There were many successful measures in 2016, and we’re seeing many conservative governors saying, ‘I’m not going to implement that.’” One recent example: In response to successful Medicaid-expansion and cannabis-legalization referenda in Maine, Republican Governor Paul LePage has led the charge to blunt the effectiveness of the tool itself. “Referendum is pure democracy and it has not worked for 15,000 years,” he said in his final State of the State address in February.

LePage’s campaign echoes those of many conservative leaders across the country. Maine Republicans have proposed a new ballot-initiative scheme that would require petitions to receive not only a certain number of signatures overall, but also a specific number in each congressional district—thus forcing petitioners to expend more money and energy in districts where they might find less support. South Dakota is considering a similar plan. Arizona’s legislature has passed a series of laws over the past four years sharply curtailing citizen initiatives, and in 2017, Michigan passed a law tightening the time window for gathering names. Although conservatives have used referenda and amendments effectively as a policymaking tool in the pastthe most significant being the Proposition 8 amendment that banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008—Republican leaders have lately characterized the initiatives as progressive weapons aimed at subverting democracy.

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.”