You probably recall some of the history of direct democracy from your middle-school history class. New England villages in the 17th century passed their laws in annual town hall meetings but, as populations grew across the country, that type of direct democracy gave way to representative democracy. In time, control of the levers of power fell to fewer and fewer wealthy white men. American politics became more democratic in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, and initiatives and referendums became increasingly common tools used by citizens in exercising their political voice.
Ballot initiatives continue to thrive today, and they can tell us a great deal about what’s on the minds of our fellow citizens.
How does today’s political system work against representative democracy?
Political commentators and historians alike express concern over the impacts to democracy by the gaming of the system to select our representatives. With fewer competitive seats due to gerrymandering and voter suppression, politicians tend to become more extreme rather than represent a broader range of the public.
Awash in money from special interests, too many politicians focus on the needs of their wealthy donors. For instance, NPR reported in late October that outside groups had spent almost a billion dollars on the campaigns of Republican Senate candidates, hoping to take control of that body and therefore, the judiciary, “where the right wing has entrenched itself as it has become increasingly extreme and unpopular.”
Thankfully, the Democrats will continue control of the Senate for the remainder of Joe Biden’s first term, allowing him to continue to shape the judiciary in ways that will help the American people. But as the views of corporations and the wealthy continue to be prioritized by politicians, members of the public are increasingly turning to ballot initiatives to make their voices heard.
Initiatives can help identify the general support for a political agenda.
Ballot initiatives are interesting but imperfect tools. Initiatives are generally placed on a ballot when enough voters sign a petition of support. When well-crafted and fully explained, they give voters a chance to take a stand on specific issues that may have proven difficult for legislators to address in deeply partisan or divided states.
In certain instances — such as with the requirement voted in by the people of Michigan that a nonpartisan commission handle the congressional districting process — these initiatives are often strongly opposed by politicians who fear losing power.* They can also be problematic. One of the difficulties in our Citizens United world is that many are supported or challenged by powerful special interests whose involvement and financial interests are often hidden. This is especially true in a state like California, where ballot initiatives have grown like wildfire since the success in 1978 of Proposition 13.
Nonetheless, ballot initiatives give us a snapshot of how much the voters actually support the agendas of the two political parties. Many commentators have said that the policies of President Joe Biden and the Democrats are very popular nationally, although that is not reflected in the current climate of political reporting.
What did we learn in 2022?
In looking through election data from the midterms, some interesting examples surfaced where we had a chance to test the hypothesis of the popularity of the Democrats agenda in states that range from deep blue progressive to deep red conservative.**
Here’s a short list of issues and places where the people had a direct say on a policy issue. Pay special attention to where these ballot initiatives took place, for that’s instructive.
- Americans support a woman’s right to choose and make decisions about her own body and health care.
- Since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Americans have had six chances to vote directly on laws that would affect their access to abortion — once last summer in Kansas (deep red) and five in this year’s midterm elections. Every single time, voters have pushed for abortion rights. Abortion measures were on the midterm ballots in five states: California (blue), Kentucky (red), Michigan (swing state turned blue), Montana (deep red), and Vermont (deep blue). Preliminary results show that, in all five, voters sought to either maintain or strengthen abortion access in their state.
- Americans don’t want politicians and far-right zealots making decisions about — and criminalizing — their gender identity.
- By popular vote, Nevada (swing state that trends blue) added protections for sexual orientation and gender identity into its constitution.
- Americans want to expand Medicaid to provide more affordable health care to the poorest among us.
- Voters in South Dakota (deep red) approved an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, providing tens of thousands of impoverished people with access to health care, dismissing state GOP attempts to sink the effort.
- Americans want to give the least among us a helping hand and ensure that the rich pay their fair share in taxes to support the common good.
- Voters in Colorado (blue) approved a ballot measure to provide free meals for all public school students. The measure will help schools pay for the meals by raising $100 million a year by increasing taxes on the state’s richest residents.
- In addition to the Colorado initiative, voters in Massachusetts (blue) approved an amendment to the state constitution to increase taxes on those earning over $1 million a year.
- Americans support public education.
- After a political fight that stretches back more than a decade, voters in New Mexico (blue) approved a ballot measure that would make the Southwestern state the first in the country to guarantee a constitutional right to early childhood education.
- Americans are ready to move past the era of Jim Crow.
- Voters in Oregon (blue), Alabama (deep red), Tennessee (deep red), and Vermont (deep blue) passed ballot measures to strip antiquated language from state constitutions that allowed slavery and forced labor as punishments for crimes.
- Americans want businesses and corporations to pay a fair and living wage.
- Voters in Nebraska (deep red) approved a ballot measure raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.
- Americans want easy and fair elections.
- In Michigan (swing state that has trended blue), sixty percent of the voters approved Proposal 2, which establishes nine days of early in-person voting, creates new mandates for townships to set up ballot drop boxes, and supplies state-funded postage to vote by mail.
- Nevada voters (swing state that trends blue) approved a measure that will have the state join Alaska and Maine in ramping down the partisanship through ranked-choice voting in statewide and congressional races.
- When given a choice, at least six swing states that decided 2020 won’t have election-denying governors or secretaries of state. Though not a ballot initiative, election deniers were defeated at the polls in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (all swing states by definition).
I’m no professional analyst, but when I look at this sample of how voters in states all across the political spectrum spoke when they had a specific choice and a clear opportunity, I see an America that increasingly
- is tired of extremism,
- wants fair elections that are run in a nonpartisan manner,
- believes that all of us should be able to make decisions about our body and our future,
- wants to treat those who are less fortunate fairly and give them a hand-up,
- understands that education is a key to growing an active and engaged citizenry,
- is ready to deal on some level with our long history of racial discord, and
- wants everyone — especially the rich — to pay their fair share. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. phrased it, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”
That list, plus sensible gun control and climate action, summarizes the Democratic platform, an agenda that is popular across the political spectrum when addressed outside the rightwing disinformation network.
Much to think about for the next two years.
More to come…
*For decades the Republicans who controlled the Michigan legislature had drawn heavily gerrymandered districts, the most recent so extreme that in 2019, federal judges called them a “political gerrymander of historical proportions.” Voters amended the state constitution to require an independent, nonpartisan panel of 13 citizens to redraw the maps. While political competitiveness was not central to the criteria they used, it was the result.Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, November 9, 2022
**In looking at this data, it is helpful to note that defying the political narrative, the Democratic coalition remains broad, much more reflective of the nation as a whole than their counterparts across the aisle. Black voters (about 85 percent), a majority of Asian (about 63 percent), and a majority of Latino voters (60 percent) backed Democrats in 2022. The party also won sizable numbers of white voters (40 percent) and even white voters without college degrees (32 percent). Liberal voters (90 percent), of course, preferred Democrats, but so did moderates (55 percent)