Tuesday, August 01, 2017

After record number of ballot initiatives, state legislators scramble to challenge or change them

"State legislators across the country fought back this year against a recent surge in citizen-generated ballot initiatives by modifying or scrapping voter-approved laws and passing new laws to make it harder for people to put measures on the ballot in the first place, Elaine Povich reports for Stateline, the nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 2016, citizens initiated 76 ballot measures in 26 states and Washington, D.C., the highest number in 10 years. Part of the reason is that a lower voter turnout in the 2014 elections meant that voters in some states didn’t need as many signatures to submit ballot initiatives. In response to this, some states tried to make the process more difficult to discourage future attempts. In 2017, 186 bills in 33 states have been introduced to make changes in the initiative process; 17 have been approved and 61 are still pending. The bills "added or lifted restrictions on the process, changed campaign finance rules, and added supermajority requirements, among other provisions," Povich reports.

Ballotpedia graphic
Another, larger reason for the glut of initiatives was that voters were attempting to address controversial issues that lawmakers didn’t want to deal with, like marijuana legalization. And finally, a growing number of initiatives have been submitted by citizens representing lobbyists. "The intent of progressives in initiating initiatives and referenda [historically] was to circumvent legislatures that were not doing the people’s will,"says Maurice Cunningham, an associate political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. "Now referenda are often used by interests that can’t get something through the legislative process — hearings, amendments, debates — but can put a measure on the ballot and, by virtue of campaign spending, have a pretty good chance to get voters to pass it."

Josh Altic of Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks ballot initiatives, told Povich, "We have definitely seen some notable cases of legislative tampering this year, especially with regard to the boldness with which legislatures are willing to change or repeal initiatives." For example, a voter initiative helped make medical marijuana legal in Florida, but state lawmakers then decided that it couldn't be smoked (triggering a lawsuit from one of the initiative's backers). In Maine an initiative was passed that imposed a new tax on the wealthy, but state lawmakers repealed it.

Why so much resistance to voter initiatives? One reason might be that the issues highlighted lawmakers' unwillingness to tackle lightning rod issues. But lawmakers say "many of the ballot measures voters approve are sloppily written, don’t take into account current law, or wouldn’t have the effect intended," Povich reports.

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