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Attacking Citizen Ballot Initiatives Only Deteriorates Democracy Further

Nearly all of the most monumental and beneficial changes to political structures across the country have come at the behest of the people. From independent redistricting to anti-corruption measures, voters often take it upon themselves to fix a rigged political process. 

But what happens when the will of voters is stifled?

RepresentUs, the nation’s largest nonpartisan anti-corruption group, released a report in June detailing 11 states that have in recent years considered over 60 bills to make the citizens' ballot initiative process more cumbersome for voters. In most cases, states have considered raising the vote threshold to adopt a ballot measure to a supermajority rather than a simple 50%+1 majority.

The group followed up on the report with an analysis of 17 state ballot measures that may never have become law if 60% of the vote was needed to adopt them. Many of these proposals were designed to create a fairer, more equitable, and more accountable political process.

Alaska’s historic nonpartisan top-four primary with ranked choice voting in the general election measure in 2020, for example, would not have passed if 60% of the vote was required. The same can be said for a 2018 measure in North Dakota that created a state ethics commission, banned foreign political contributions, and placed conflict of interest provisions on lobbying.

Maine’s game-changing 2016 ranked choice voting ballot measure? Wouldn’t have passed. Automatic voter registration in Nevada? Nope. Improved campaign finance restrictions in Washington? Passed with a simple majority.

And this doesn’t even tell the whole story. The citizen ballot initiative process has been critical to creating better electoral and political processes throughout the US. 

State politicians and special interest groups see this, and as reform victories increase, so do efforts to stop future campaigns from being successful. After all, they have benefited greatly from a system designed to keep them in power. Their incentive is to preserve the status quo.

Raising the voting threshold to 60% does not create an impossible hurdle to clear for some campaigns. It does, however, stack the deck considerably. It makes campaigns more costly and requires more resources and people working tirelessly on the ground to give initiatives a chance at success.

Reaching enough voters to get a simple majority of support can be challenging for many citizen initiative campaigns because they often start small with limited money and resources. When these campaigns succeed, it is a testament to the hard work of everyone involved. 

By raising the voting requirement by ten percentage points, this task would be insurmountable for smaller campaigns. And, that is the goal. Not just to make it harder to pass initiatives, but to dissuade future campaigns from even trying.

None of the 64 bills that have been proposed in 11 states over the last few years have passed, but there were a few close calls. A bill that would implement a two-thirds voting requirement came so close to passing in Missouri that a filibuster in the state senate was needed to stop it.

It is also important to note that 11 is nearly half the number of states that allow a citizen ballot initiative process. Millions of voters do not even have this as an option to effect change in their state.

Check out RepresentUs's full analysis here.

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About the Author

Shawn Griffiths

Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.

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