The Left Won Big on Ballot Initiatives. That’s Why They’re Under Attack.

In the midterms, ballot initiatives cut through partisan polarization to reveal majorities for higher wages, expanded health care access, and abortion rights. That’s why many state-level Republicans are attempting to undermine the ballot initiative process.

In the past decade, labor unions and advocacy groups have begun using citizen initiatives to directly pass policies that benefit working-class communities. (US Department of State / PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

This election cycle, voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont enshrined the right to abortion in their state constitutions, while voters in Kentucky and Montana rejected attempts to make abortion illegal. Nebraska and Washington, DC, voters raised minimum wages. Arizona voters limited medical debt interest rates. South Dakotans expanded access to Medicaid. Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont abolished slavery in prisons. And they did it all by ballot initiative, continuing the trend of voters using citizen initiatives to pass majoritarian policies that elected representatives won’t.

Citizen initiatives allow voters to gather petition signatures to put a policy question on the ballot. Half the states and many municipalities have them, but for a century the Left has largely neglected them. In the past decade that’s begun to change, as labor unions and advocacy groups began using citizen initiatives to directly pass policies that benefit working-class communities — policies that are supported by the majority but that legislators won’t advance, as elected leaders in both parties consistently prove faithful to elite interests.

We recently published a report showing just how effective citizen initiatives have been in winning policies that would be impossible to win through the legislative process. In the past decade, initiatives that return wealth, rights, and decision-making power to working communities and vulnerable populations pass most of the time in red, blue, and purple states alike. Initiatives that redistribute wealth and resources to working-class people have a 75 percent success rate. The focus on polarizing Democrat-vs-Republican fights dominates political commentary, but citizen initiative results reveal that there is widespread support for a policy agenda that is considerably left of both parties.

As this election’s results again demonstrate, initiatives continue to be an effective tool to pass policies that improve ordinary people’s lives and democratize governance. However, successes have led to sweeping pushback from legislators who are used to having a monopoly on decision-making power and are concerned about the potential of initiatives to undermine their elite backers.

Below are some notable statewide results from the November election. They highlight the potential of securing progressive policies via ballot initiative — a potential that many people in positions of power are keen to undermine by attacking the initiative process itself.

Abortion Rights

There were five ballot votes on abortion rights on November 8. Kentucky had a referendum, legislatively-referred initiative — meaning the initiative was placed on the ballot by the state legislature, not by citizen petition — to amend the state constitution to enable the legislature to ban abortion rights. Montana had a referendum on a law to ban abortion. Voters rejected both. These followed a similar outcome in August, when Kansas voters rejected an anti-choice referendum.

California and Michigan voted on citizen initiatives to enshrine abortion rights in state constitutions, and Vermont saw a referendum to do the same. All three passed. In total, there have now been six ballot initiative votes on abortion rights since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in July, and the results of all of them uphold reproductive freedom — a resounding affirmation that majorities in states across the country support the right to abortion.

  • California Proposition 1: Constitutional right to reproductive freedom
    • Passed: 64.9 percent
  • Michigan Proposal 3: Constitutional right to reproductive freedom
    • Passed: 56.7 percent
  • Vermont Proposal 5: Constitutional right to reproductive freedom
    • Passed: 77.2 percent
  • Kentucky Amendment 2: No right to abortion
    • Rejected: 52.4 percent
  • Montana Referendum 131: “Born-alive” measure
    • Rejected: 52.55 percent

Minimum Wage

Voters in Nebraska approved a citizen initiative to raise the minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour by 2026. Washington, DC, approved a measure raising the wage floor for tipped workers from $5.35 to $16.10 an hour by 2027, bringing it in line with the city’s minimum wage for nontipped workers.

Minimum wage initiatives have been universally successful in the past quarter century. Since 1996, there have now been twenty-five ballot measures to raise state minimum wages and every single one has passed — with an average of 60 percent of the vote.

  • Nebraska Initiative 433: Increase minimum wage
    • Passed: 58.2 percent
  • Washington, DC, Initiative 82
    • Passed: 74 percent

Abolishing Slavery in Prisons

The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. This loophole has enabled the continuation of gross labor exploitation of captive workers in prisons. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and two-thirds of prisoners are workers with no labor rights. Five states had referred initiatives removing the prison exception to the ban on slavery in state constitutions. Those in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont passed; Louisiana’s did not.

Louisiana’s referendum was similar to other states, but it included an extra clause, that the prohibition “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.” To many prison rights advocates, this amounted to recreating the same ambiguity the amendment was claiming to undo.

  • Alabama Recompiled Constitution Question: Remove racist language from constitution
    • Passed: 76.5 percent
  • Oregon Measure 112: Remove slavery-as-punishment from state constitution
    • Passed: 55.2 percent
  • Tennessee Amendment 3: Remove slavery-as-punishment from state constitution
    • Passed: 79.5 percent
  • Vermont: Prohibit slavery and indentured servitude
    • Passed: 89 percent
  • Louisiana Amendment 7: Remove slavery-as-punishment from state constitution
    • Rejected: 60.8 percent

Union Rights

Voters in Illinois approved codifying the right to join a union in the state’s constitution. Tennessee voters, on the other hand, enshrined the anti-union “right to work” law in their constitution. Ballot initiatives were introduced to the United States in the late nineteenth century by the People’s Party, a multiracial coalition of farmers and workers that briefly came together in opposition to the control industry barons wielded over legislators. Many early initiatives defended workers’ rights, established pensions, and other protections, but in recent decades right-to-work laws and other union legislation have had mixed results at the ballot.

  • Illinois Amendment 1: Right to collective bargaining
    • Passed: 58.1 percent
  • Tennessee Amendment 1: Right-to-work
    • Passed: 69.8 percent

Medicaid Expansion

South Dakota voters approved expanding access to Medicaid, following six states that did the same in the previous two electoral cycles.

When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, the Republican Party made attacking it a centerpiece of its agenda. The ACA made Medicaid available to anyone at or below 138 percent of the poverty line, but when the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the federal government could not mandate the expansion, nineteen states controlled by Republicans refused to expand their coverage. Voters in many of these states turned to ballot initiatives and won Medicaid expansion.

Out of the eight initiatives to expand Medicaid, only one has lost. That was in Montana, when the initiative was forced to include steep tobacco taxes, which drew millions in opposition funding from the tobacco industry. Despite its use as a political football when the ACA passed, majorities of both parties tend to support Medicaid and the program’s expansion.

  • South Dakota Amendment D: Expand access to Medicaid
    • Passed: 56.2 percent

Curbing Predatory Debt Collection

Arizona voters overwhelmingly approved a citizen initiative to curb predatory collection of medical debt. The initiative sets limits on interest rates from medical debt and exempts property repossession for low-income and middle-class families. A similar measure passed in Colorado in 2018 by 77 percent of the vote, and an initiative capping predatory payday lending practices passed in Nebraska in 2020 by 83 percent. These results point to the commonsense reality that despite their centrality in the US economy, most people oppose predatory lending practices.

  • Arizona Proposition 209: Limit medical debt collection
    • Passed: 72 percent

Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana charges account for almost half of all drug arrests in the United States, impacting millions of people, disproportionately black people. California first legalized medical marijuana in 1996 via ballot initiative, with numerous states following suit. In 2012, Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, also by ballot initiative. Some state legislatures have legalized marijuana in recent years, but ballot initiatives have been the main tool. This year, voters in Maryland and Missouri legalized marijuana, while voters in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota rejected it. Colorado also legalized psychedelic mushrooms via initiative vote.

  • Maryland Question 4: Marijuana legalization
    • Passed: 65.7 percent
  • Missouri Amendment 3: Marijuana legalization
    • Passed: 53 percent
  • Arkansas Issue 4: Marijuana legalization
    • Rejected: 56.3 percent
  • North Dakota Measure 2: Marijuana legalization
    • Rejected: 54.8 percent
  • South Dakota Measure 27: Marijuana legalization
    • Rejected: 52.9 percent

Free Lunch

Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative that would cut tax deductions for the wealthiest bracket to fund free, healthy school meals for all students. In Massachusetts, voters approved the “Fair Share” Amendment, which taxes millionaires to fund public transportation and education. Both measures passed easily, showing once again that voters will support taxing the rich to fund public programs like schools if they understand how the money will be spent.

  • Colorado Proposition FF: Reduce income tax deductions to fund school meals
    • Passed: 56 percent
  • Massachusetts Question 1: Millionaire tax to fund transportation and education
    • Passed: 52 percent

Voting Rights

Voting rights had mixed results on the ballot. Michigan approved a citizen initiative to make voting more accessible, Connecticut passed an early voting referendum, and Nevada voters adopted ranked-choice voting for state elections by citizen initiative. Alabama passed a referendum mandating no changes to state voting rules within six months before an election — seemingly designed to preempt possible changes to election processes to accommodate events like the COVID-19 outbreak. Nebraska passed a referendum to require voters to present identification.

Ohio voters approved a referendum banning noncitizens from voting. Federal law already restricts federal voting to citizens, and no municipality in Ohio had allowed noncitizens to vote, so the referendum was part preemptive and part performative. Citizen initiatives are vulnerable to nationalist politics: in addition to early initiative votes in US states that enfranchised women and expanded labor rights, some early initiatives were anti-immigrant as well. But this is not always the case either — this year Arizonans passed an initiative granting in-state tuition to students regardless of immigration status.

Arizona had four referendums to restrict voting rights on the ballot and one anti-corruption initiative. The referendum receiving the most attention is Proposition 309, which would have imposed stricter voter identification rules; with 88 percent of the votes counted, it was losing in a close election. The other three, Propositions 128, 129, and 132, are all part of a package of initiatives referred by the legislature that attempt to limit the scope of citizen initiatives. These are part of a sustained attack on ballot initiative rights that is underway in multiple states.

Prop 128 would allow the legislature to modify or repeal passed initiatives if a court ruled any component of them unconstitutional; voters decisively rejected it. Prop 129 would limit ballot measures to a single issue, which appears to be common sense, but will likely empower courts to interfere with initiatives and will effectively bar complex legislation from being passed via initiative. With most of the vote counted, it is expected to pass. Prop 132 would require a supermajority of 60 percent for initiatives that require new taxes. This measure comes in response to a successful 2020 initiative that raised taxes on the rich to fund public schools but was later rolled back by the state legislature and judiciary. As of this writing, Prop 132 looks like it could pass by a very slim margin.

Proposition 211, a citizen initiative, would impose campaign funding disclosure requirements on political campaigns. It will pass easily, once again showing that campaign finance reform has broad support among voters.

Initiatives have the potential to make voting more democratic. For example, the 2020 initiatives to pass ranked-choice voting in Alaska and create an independent districting council to undo gerrymandering in Michigan both resulted in significant impacts on this year’s elections. But initiative votes around elections rules are also vulnerable to being exploited by legislatures using partisan appeals, enabling them to eliminate voters’ rights and justify it with the popular vote.

  • Connecticut Question 1: Allow early voting
    • Passed: 60 percent
  • Michigan Proposal 22-2: Early voting and ballot drop boxes
    • Passed: 60 percent
  • Nevada Question 3: Ranked-choice voting
    • Passed: 52.5 percent
  • Arizona Proposition 128: Amend invalid ballot initiatives
    • Rejected: 64 percent
  • Arizona Proposition 129: Limit ballot measures to single subject
    • Passed: 55 percent
  • Arizona Proposition 132: Require supermajority for measures requiring new taxes
    • Likely to pass: 50.5 percent (88 percent of votes counted)
  • Arizona Proposition 309: Impose new voter ID requirements
    • Likely rejected: 51 percent (with 88 percent of votes counted)
  • Nebraska Initiative 432: Require voters to show photo ID
    • Passed: 65.6 percent
  • Ohio Question 2: Citizenship voting requirement
    • Passed: 77.1 percent
  • Alabama Amendment 4: No election law changes within 6 months before an election
    • Passed: 79.9 percent

From Popular Opinion to Policy

Beyond state-level initiatives, there were a number of significant municipal initiatives that transfer wealth from the 1 percent to public services. Of eleven local initiatives in California and New York to create real-estate transfer taxes to fund affordable housing, nine passed, most by supermajority. In Santa Monica, California, there were two competing transfer taxes on the ballot, and the larger one passed — creating a $5,600 transfer tax per $100,000 for homes worth more than $8 million to fund housing for people without homes and public schools. In total, these wins are expected to generate well over $1 billion annually for housing and education.

Ballot initiatives aren’t always guaranteed to work in favor of the majority. State legislatures can use referendums to take away people’s rights and make it appear democratic, for example by referring initiatives that raise barriers to citizen initiatives or make it harder to vote. And the wealthy can exploit citizen initiatives to expand their interests. We saw this in 2020, when app-based driver companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash spent over $200 million to pass an anti-union initiative in California.

However, initiatives are also a tool for people without a seat at the policymaking table to directly pass laws that improve the lives of working-class people in a political system that ignores them. Crucially, ballot initiatives rely on popular opinion on specific issues, not party identification. Where there is public support for policies that return rights and resources to the working-class majority, citizen initiatives can turn that support into policy, and perhaps provide a basis on which to organize toward a workers’ policy agenda. Labor unions and rights advocacy groups have been doing just that. Citizen initiatives that redistribute wealth and decision-making power to nonelites pass at significantly higher rates than other initiatives.

This wave of successes — particularly minimum wage increases, Medicaid expansion, and measures that raise taxes on the wealthy to fund public services — has led to harsh blowback from state legislatures. In 2017, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center clocked thirty-three bills in statehouses designed to restrict ballot initiatives. By 2021, that had exploded to 146 bills. Beyond the overt attacks, legislatures and judiciaries in multiple states have been chipping away at ballot processes for years, making them more onerous and expensive to run.

The opposition to citizen initiatives is partially due to their use to pass specific policies that legislators oppose, but it’s also about the challenge initiative votes pose to the façade of democracy in the legislative system. Partisan politics makes it seem like people are split down the middle nationwide, and both parties are increasingly relying on panicky narratives about the other side’s popularity to mobilize voters. Ballot initiative votes reveal large majorities support egalitarian policies in states that vote for Republicans and Democrats alike.

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Benjamin S. Case is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University. He is also the lead researcher on the ballot-initiatives project and coauthor of its report on ballot-initiative politics, Majority Rules: The Battle for Ballot Initiatives.

Michael McQuarrie is the director of the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University and coauthor of its report on ballot-initiative politics, Majority Rules: The Battle for Ballot Initiatives.

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