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Direct Democracy On The Ballot: 2022 Ballot Initiatives

In addition to control of Congress, voters will decide hundreds of ballot initiatives this November.

You have heard it before, including from us: minus the fiscal year 2023 continuing resolution that Congress is expected to approve in the next two weeks, legislating will be pretty slow this fall.

That is true — at the federal level, at least. Voters themselves actually will have plenty of opportunities to directly influence local and state policy by casting votes in Election 2022.

According to Ballotpedia, as of September 13, 137 statewide ballot measures had been certified for the November elections across 37 states. That number is slightly less than the average over the last decade, and continues a downward trend seen in recent years. From 2010 to 2020, the average number of statewide ballot measures in an even-numbered year was 164, but, according to The Initiative and Referendum Institute, in 2020 there were only 122 propositions on the ballot, the lowest number in an even-numbered year in the 21st century, and well below the peak of 204 measures in 2006 and the 156 in 2018.

The proliferation of ballot initiatives has caused controversy. In fact, this week Politico reported Republicans are trying to rein in the process. Let’s take a look at the history of these policymaking mechanisms, what exactly is on the ballot this year, and what the future might hold for them.

What Is A Ballot Measure, And Why Are They Important?

There are two types of ballot measures: initiated measures and referred measures. An initiated measure is a proposed law for which individual citizens or organizations collect signatures to get the policy proposal on the ballot. A referred measure is a proposed law that a legislature or commission puts on the ballot for voters to decide.

From 2010 to 2020, referred measures outnumbered initiated measures almost two-to-one. This year, that ratio is three-to-one. State legislators clearly want to put more questions directly to the people.

Why do referred measures overwhelmingly outweigh referred measures? For one thing, the bare majority of states allow them. After all, these people-powered initiatives offer policymakers very limited control, as our friends across the pond in a post-Brexit environment can attest.

According to Ballotpedia, 26 states have ballot referendum processes at the statewide level. Washington, D.C., also has initiative and referendum processes.

Robert Longley, a government and urban planning expert explained that initiated ballot measures are “a form of direct democracy … the process through which citizens exercise the power to place measures otherwise considered by state legislatures or local governments on statewide and local ballots for a public vote.” He noted, “Successful ballot initiatives can create, change or repeal state and local laws, or amend state constitutions and local charters. Ballot initiatives can also be used simply to force state or local legislative bodies to consider the subject of the initiative.”

No wonder lawmakers might be reluctant to allow them.

What Issues Are On The Ballot In 2022?

Some ballot measures are mundane. This year voters in Alabama, for example, will decide whether to allow the state’s Public Service Commission to regulate private sewer systems in a single county (Shelby). On the other hand, some measures could have huge implications for thousands of people. In fact, Arizona voters will decide whether to repeal a provision that offers in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants.

Proposals to raise or cut tax revenue often are very popular and that certainly is true in 2022.

If approved, Proposition 30 in California would impose an additional 1.75 percent tax on personal incomes of more than $2 million. The state would use the revenue to fund zero-emission vehicle projects and wildfire prevention programs. Massachusetts voters also will consider a wealth tax. That ballot initiative would create a four percent tax on incomes that exceed $1 million and use the proceeds for education and transportation.

In Colorado, meanwhile, voters will decide whether to reduce the state income tax rate from 4.55 percent to 4.4 percent for the current tax year (2022) and future years. Idaho voters will be asked whether to advise the legislature to enact a flat percent income and corporate tax.

The conduct of campaigns and elections are another frequent subject of ballot initiatives. In Maryland this year, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to require that state legislators reside and maintain a place of residence in the district in which they wish to represent for six months prior to the date of election. Arizona and Nebraska voters will decide whether to impose a photo ID requirement for voting.

In recent years, ballot initiatives related to marijuana legalization have become increasingly popular. Just how popular? This year, voters in deep red Arkansas will decide whether to legalize marijuana use for residents 21 years of age and older and authorize the commercial sale of the product. Four other states also will consider marijuana-related measures.

This year, because of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, access to reproductive health care services is on the ballot in six states. Policies related to clean energy, collective bargaining, and the minimum wage also have been popular topics in recent years.

State governments are not the only ones that utilize ballot measures. Cities and counties do as well. In fact, while only 26 states allow initiated statewide ballot initiatives, according to Ballotpedia, every single one allows local referenda. There are at least 11 local initiatives on the ballot in Washington state, including a San Juan County proposal to implement ranked-choice voting in elections. Boulder, Colo. will consider a climate tax.

While the number of ballot initiatives is smaller than in past years, the potential for real policymaking by the people is significant. And that has some people worried.

Republican Movement To Limit Ballot Measures

Because of these fears, this year voters in a few states will even decide the fate of future ballot measures. As Politico reported this week, “Republicans across the country are working to make it harder” to put these initiatives on the ballot.

Republican legislatures in both Arizona and Arkansas have put forward referenda that ask voters to approve constitutional amendments that would raise the threshold for enactment of ballot initiatives from 50 percent to 60 percent. Arkansas’ proposal would apply to constitutional amendments and citizen-initiated state statutes on any subject matter. Arizona’s proposal is more limited. It would apply only to tax-related measures, but Politico said, if approved, this measure is likely “a prelude to a broader version” that could regulate ballot initiatives for other issues.

Lawmakers in Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Utah are expected to consider similar measures in coming years.

One reason Republicans may not look kindly on ballot initiatives is the popular belief that they help increase voter turnout to the benefit, generally, of Democrats. A study published in November 2021 by Fordham University researchers found, “The disparity in turnout rates between initiative and non-initiative states has been increasing over time, estimated at seven percent to nine percent higher in midterm and three percent to 4.5 percent higher in presidential elections in the 1990s.” The researchers concluded, “Our analysis suggests that the initiative process can and does play a positive role in increasing electoral participation.”

Of course, Republicans themselves have used ballot initiatives to drive voters to the polls. Brookings scholar John Hudak reminded readers that, in 2004, the GOP put a constitutional amendment on gay marriage on the ballot in several states to motivate “Republican voters to show up on Election Day” to defeat John Kerry.

According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, in the 2021 legislative session there were 146 bills in U.S. states that were aimed at restricting or abolishing the ballot measure process, a 500 percent increase from the 33 bills introduced in 2017.

Republicans are not the only ones who have suggested that the ballot initiative process is a little too robust, however. Normally, readers might expect that California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, might support the aforementioned Proposition 30 to support green transportation investments. But Gov. Newsom recently called ballot measure “one company’s cynical scheme.” The governor noted ride-share service Lyft bankrolled the initiative after California regulators ordered it and other ride-sharing companies to require nearly all their drivers have electric vehicles by 2030.

Do these statements and state proposals mean the days of the ballot measure might be limited? We’ll have to wait to see how Arizona and Arkansas voters cast their ballots to determine if there is a trend.

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