In 2008, bright blue California banned same-sex marriage. In 2018, Arkansas and Missouri, firmly conservative, raised their minimum wage. And last year, Republican-controlled Arizona and Montana legalized recreational marijuana.
These moves were the product of election initiatives, a centennial element of American democracy that allows voters to pass their legislatures to enact new laws, often with results that challenge the wishes of elected state representatives. While they have been a tool of both parties in the past, Democrats have been especially successful in recent years in using election initiatives to advance their agenda in conservative states where they have few paths.
But this year, Republican-led legislatures in Florida, Idaho, South Dakota and other states have passed laws limiting the use of the practice, part of a broader Republican Party attempt to block political control during the coming years, along with new laws to restrict access to voting and partisan redesign of congressional districts that will take place in the coming months.
To date, in 2021, Republicans have introduced 144 bills to restrict electoral initiative processes in 32 states, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a liberal group that monitors and helps citizen-driven referendums. Of these bills, 19 have been signed into law by nine Republican governors. In three states, Republican lawmakers have asked voters to pass voting initiatives that, in fact, limit their own right to present and approve future voting initiatives.
“They have implemented network after network of technicians and barriers that make it very difficult for community groups to vote and counter why voting initiatives were created in the first place,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “This is directly related to all the attacks we have seen against our democracy.”
In recent years, Democrats have taken advantage of election initiatives to avoid Republican-controlled legislatures, enacting laws in red states that raised the minimum wage, legalized marijuana, expanded Medicaid, introduced non-party redistrictions and no-vote absences, and reinstated right to vote to persons convicted of a serious crime.
Republicans are trying to block this path in a variety of ways, including forceful measures that point directly to the process and others that are more subtle.
“The people petitioning have been very ingenious,” said state Sen. Al Novstrup, a 66-year-old Republican who sponsored the bill because, he said, the text of voting initiatives is often too small to read. “There are no restrictions on paper size.”
In Mississippi last week, the conservative State Supreme Court, which ruled on a Republican lawsuit, invalidated the entire state initiative process on a technicality, launched a 2020 referendum legalizing medical marijuana and stopped the signature collection effort to place the expansion of Medicaid at the state level. Ballot of 2022. The constitutional amendment created by the state initiative law was enacted in 1992, when the state had five congressional districts, and required voter signatures on each. Mississippi has only four districts since the 2000 census.
And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that introduced a $ 3,000 limit on campaign contributions to voting initiatives, cutting off a key source of revenue to subsidize the collection of petitions for petitions.
The Republican effort that is gaining strength now has been going on for years.
In South Dakota, Republicans have limited the window in recent years to collecting petition signatures in the cold winter months and have demanded all pitchers register with the state and carry state-issued ID cards. while collecting signatures, hurdles that the few Democrats in the state say have increased the difficulty of qualifying for the ballot.
“Republicans have all the offices across the state, 85 percent of the legislature and all the constitutional positions,” said Reynold F. Nesiba, one of the three Democrats in the 35-member state Senate. “The only place Democrats can move forward is through the measurement process started, and Republicans want to get it out, too.”
Now state Republican lawmakers will present South Dakota voters with a constitutional amendment to raise the threshold for passing referendums, raising it to 60% of the simple majority. (The threshold to raise the threshold? Still only 50 percent.)
The question will appear in the June 2022 state primary vote, which is expected to be dominated by Republican competitions. The new threshold could be in place for the November 2022 general election, when a referendum on Medicaid enlargement is expected to take place in front of voters.
State Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a Republican, said in March that he wanted to specifically block the expansion of Medicaid.
“It is a fair protection for the citizens of our state,” he said Thursday.
Proposals to limit voting initiatives are part of an ongoing campaign by conservatives to withdraw progressive political efforts. To get a referendum on the ballot, petitioners have to collect tens of thousands of signatures; the figures vary by state. The process can cost millions, so initiative campaigns are usually subscribed to by large donors.
In Arizona, Republicans have been smart since 2018, when Tom Steyer, the Democratic billionaire who later ran for president, helped fund a ultimately failed effort to pass a constitutional amendment that required half of the energy of the state came from renewable sources.
In February, Republican State Representative Tim Dunn introduced a resolution that sought to raise the threshold for a voting initiative to go from a majority to 55 percent.
“When you look at the real people who actually vote for a voting initiative, the amount of people compared to the citizens of Arizona is quite small and the outside money can influence it quite easily,” Dunn said.
Florida Republicans expressed a similar justification for a new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that limits contributions to a citizen-organized voting initiative to $ 3,000 per person. Republicans had been frustrated by some donors who supported the voting initiatives, including John Morgan, a wealthy Orlando lawyer who spent millions of dollars on supporting measures to legalize medical marijuana and increase the minimum wage to $ 15 per hour.
But civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said the new law will effectively eliminate citizen-led voting initiatives, which often require large-scale funding to collect signatures.
These campaigns are so expensive, advocates say, because of a cascade of limitations the Florida legislature has put into initiative efforts. Recently, the legislature halved the time period in which signatures must be submitted before they expire; banned the practice of paying signature collectors by signature; required those people who collected signatures to use a separate piece of paper for each signature; and demanded that all signatures be verified, prohibiting a much cheaper “random sampling” process.
“With all the successful initiatives or all the big efforts that the legislature doesn’t approve of, there’s a new law to make it more costly, heavier, to propose an initiative,” said Nicholas Warren, a lawyer for the Florida ACLU.
Republican sponsors of the new law in Florida agree that constitutional amendments will be harder to pass. That is their goal.
“I’m not arguing that it will be harder to hold a referendum at the polls under the statute, but that’s the point,” said State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who sponsored the bill.
In Missouri, this year, 22 Republican-sponsored bills have tried to limit the state’s voting initiative process, including one that would double the number of signatures needed to vote and raise the threshold for a measure to pass. , from a simple majority to two-thirds, which would be the highest in the country.
“They were really just politicians trying to drastically limit the constitutional rights of Missourians to use the process while telling us it’s for our own good,” said Richard von Glahn, political director of Missouri Jobs With Justice, a progressive organization.
In Idaho, Republican Gov. Brad Little signed a law last month that will make it much harder to meet the signature requirements to add an initiative to the ballot. Previously, an initiative needed signatures from 6 percent of the population in 18 different legislative districts. The new law signed by Mr. Little will now require signatures from 6 percent of residents in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.
And in Mississippi, the state Supreme Court last week ruled that the initiative process was “unfeasible and inoperable” because of the disparity between the number of districts in Congress in the law and the number of districts it has. now the state.
Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, of Madison Republican, Mississeny, a Republican who filed the lawsuit that led to the invalidation of the state initiative process, said the legal actions had been aimed at protecting capacity of his city to deter marijuana retailers through zoning.
“There were those in government who knew it needed to be corrected,” Ms. Butler on the voting initiative process. “If we want to move forward in the state and protect the initiative process, it must be corrected. If it is defective, the only recourse would be to start again.”