Voting rights fight moves to state ballots

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As federal suffrage legislation stalls in Congress and activists seek alternative forms of legislation, they are increasingly turning to the ballot initiative process to allow voters to bring their own political changes.

Why is this important: While this could be seen as an expansion of direct democracy, these efforts are facing opposition in predominantly red and purple states. Lawmakers and leaders are trying to make legislation harder through the referendum process.

By the numbers: In 2021, the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center tracked 93 bills introduced by Republican state legislatures that would make it harder for ballot measures to pass. Thirteen of these bills have passed in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Arkansas and South Dakota.

  • So far this year, 28 other such bills have already been introduced by Republicans.
  • Democrats, meanwhile, introduced their own set of bills to create ballot processes in Kentucky and Wisconsin, and expand voting access in Florida, among other measures.
  • The Equity Project, a progressive group that funds ballot measurement efforts across the country, is spending $5 million on voter education campaigns and litigation to frustrate efforts by Republican-controlled legislatures to impose new restrictions on the voting process.

How we got here: The referendum has been used in the United States since the late 1700s, while South Dakota – in 1898 – became the first state to adopt a statewide ballot initiative.

  • For the past two decades, ballot initiatives have been used by Republicans in blue states to recall governors and ban same-sex marriage.
  • More recently, they’ve been used by Democrats to expand Medicaid, legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage, and restore the franchise to felony convicts in the states.
  • In both cases, the referendum process gave voters a voice where their elected officials lacked legislative juice.

What we are looking at: In swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada, both parties are turning to the ballot process to pass ballot measures and establish independent redistricting commissions.

  • There are now also a record number of democracy-related ballot measures tabled for this year.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, defenders rally around advocating for a resolution by the Republican state legislature. This would raise the approval threshold for a ballot measure to a three-fifths (60%) supermajority.

  • South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem also recently signed a law requiring signature petitions to be in 14-point type. This and the requirements that petitions be on one page have resulted in massive stacks of signature papers and more pages that have to be flipped through to see the proposal in the larger text.
  • In Missouri, a motion for a resolution would increase the number of signatures needed to put a measure to a statewide vote and raise the threshold for approval of an amendment from a simple majority to two-thirds.
  • In Arkansas, a new law prohibits canvassers from being paid for each signature they collect and requires them to be residents of Arkansas and US citizens. This is also being challenged in court.

What they say : “The threshold is too low,” Missouri State Rep. Mike Henderson told the Missouri House Elections Committee last week.

  • “Missouri’s constitution is a living document, but it is not, and should not be, an ever-expanding document,” the Republican said.
  • Another GOP lawmaker, Rep. Dan Shaul, suggested that the current law requiring simple majority voting puts “the constitution on par with the dogcatchers” and allows liberal voters in places like St. Louis and Kansas City to be overweight.
  • Kelly Hall, executive director of The Fairness Project, told Axios: “All of these hurdles may not seem insurmountable, but just like other suffrage accounts, it’s sort of cumulative, which makes it more difficult the use of direct democracy.”
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