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Previous story Republicans want to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives. That should alarm us Next story


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Published on March 6, 2021 1:27 AM

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Supporters of Missouri’s redistricting ballot measure rally in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 2018. Photograph: David A Lieb/AP
State legislators are trying to make it more difficult for citizens to take action when their own representatives won't

They walked through Michigan college football games dressed as gerrymandered districts. They crisscrossed Idaho in a decades-old RV dubbed the Medicaid Express. In Florida, they united black and white, left and right, Trump-loving "deplorables" and radical criminal justice reformers into a mighty moral movement to end an ugly vestige of Jim Crow.

Volunteers and regular citizens, determined to have a say despite gerrymandered legislatures or solidly one-party states, forced initiatives on to the ballot by collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures at highway rest areas, tailgates and small-town cheeseburger festivals. They door-knocked neighborhoods on mornings so bitter that the ink in their pens froze solid.

Then, on election day in 2018 and 2020, these citizens scored overwhelming victories for popular proposals that had gone nowhere in intransigent legislatures: independent redistricting in Michigan and Missouri, Medicaid expansion in Idaho, ranked choice voting in Maine, felony reinfranchisement and a higher minimum wage in Florida, marijuana legalization and higher teacher salaries in Arizona.

Now legislators are striking back with bills that would aggressively consolidate their power and make it decidedly more difficult for citizens to take action when their own representatives won't.

In Idaho, Missouri, Florida and Arizona – all states where citizens have successfully used ballot initiatives to pass popular reforms – Republican-dominated legislatures have advanced proposals that would place multiple new roadblocks before initiatives at nearly every point in the process. In total, Republican lawmakers in 24 states have introduced bills that would make it tougher for citizens to push initiatives to the ballot, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

The more than 165 Republican-sponsored bills in Georgia, Florida, Texas and elsewhere that would leverage baseless "voter fraud" claims from the 2020 election and establish new limits on mail-in voting, early voting and ballot drop boxes, among other new barriers, have rightly made national headlines. These quieter yet growing assaults on initiative rights, however, could be equally important in shutting down one of the last remaining paths for change in red and purple states.

The Republican bills tend to take two general approaches. First, they increase the number of signatures necessary to qualify an initiative, or the number of counties or congressional districts in which names must be gathered. Then, they require majorities greater than 60%, even two-thirds, to pass – and even after that, sometimes require final approval by the legislature.

Of course, if the legislature had been inclined to take that action, citizens would not have been required to undertake such an arduous procedure in the first place.

In Idaho, where one rural hospital might serve a county the size of a New England state, an estimated 70,000 people were stuck uncovered between the Obamacare and state exchanges. Nevertheless, legislators for six consecutive years refused to accept Affordable Care Act monies from Washington to expand Medicaid and make health care more accessible.