The Surprising Power Of Ballot Initiatives : This Is What’s Possible When The People Decide

Ballot initiatives have the potential to bring about political progress at a time when our system is stymied by partisan gridlock and a failure of imagination.

OOne of the biggest headlines in the 2022 election season thus far didn’t come from a candidate upset or a crazy stump speech — it came from voters in Kansas expressing their feelings on reproductive rights through a referendum.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Kansans voted against amending the state’s constitution to say that it does not include the right to abortion.

This vote was one example of direct democracy, or people voting directly on policy issues and questions, rather than having legislators make the decisions. Another example of direct democracy is even more powerful and happens when citizens both vote directly on issues and decide those issues should be.

This process is called citizen-led ballot initiative or ballot measure and it’s the thing I’ve obsessed with over the past year and a half. As a journalist, I’ve always been drawn to stories of grassroots politics; everyday people stepping up to take action on things they care about and bring about the change they want to see.

Ballot initiatives are the perfect tool to do that, and they’re available to people in 26 states and hundreds of cities across the United States.

In short, initiatives begin as proposed laws that are put on the ballot for voter consideration if there’s enough signatures collected — although the number of signatures, geographic distribution of signatures, and collection timeframe vary, as do the types of laws that are permitted to be proposed.

Curious how your state works? Click here to see.

AA s of August 9, 2022, 119 statewide ballot measures had been certified for the ballot in 35 states for elections in 2022; unsurprisingly, abortion initiatives are the frontrunners with at least five ballot measures addressing abortion — the most on record for a single year, signaling the grassroots pushback America so sorely needs and wants.

Ballot initiatives aren’t perfect, but I think they have the potential to bring about political progress at a time when so much of our system seems to be stymied by partisan gridlock and a failure of imagination about what’s possible.

You might have heard about ballot initiatives being used to legalize marijuana or raise the minimum wage, but that’s only the beginning of what they can, and have, done.

Here’s three powerful stories from the front-lines of what’s possible when you leverage the power of ballots.

Voters, Not Politicians

Katie Fahey grew up in a family that wasn’t really focused on politics but was very involved in their community in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Michigan. After the 2016 election, she started to hear from people in her life on both sides of the political spectrum who felt like their voices were not being heard in state and local elections.

Katie felt this way, too, but it wasn’t until she heard a story about ballot initiatives on the radio while driving to work one day that everything clicked into place.

“And this light bulb just went off like, oh, wait,” Fahey said. “We don’t have to just be miserable listening to how politics is going every single day. This is exciting.

“Redistricting could help what I’m hearing both my friends and family really want, which is more accountability from the government and more responsiveness.”

Not long after hearing that radio story, Fahey created a Facebook post asking if anyone wanted to work together to end gerrymandering in Michigan. The post took off, and within a few weeks, Katie had a network of grassroots volunteers across the state that helped propel the initiative to create an independent redistricting commission to victory in 2018.

Not only did Fahey’s initiative win, but she found a calling in grassroots politics. She now serves as the executive director of The People, a non-partisan political reform organization that helps Americans access the tools they need to engage in the political process.

Basically, she gets to share the feelings of hope that she found in the redistricting ballot initiative with others across Michigan and around the country.

“A lot of people felt like there’s nothing we can do to improve politics,”
Fahey said. “But I think part of what helped us actually is that they then saw that there were so many, there were thousands of people just volunteering, taking their free time to try and talk to their neighbors about this issue. And that made a difference.”

Letting People Vote

In August 2005, Desmond Meade found himself at a crossroads — literally.

“I was standing in front of railroad tracks, waiting for a train to come so I could jump in front of it,” Meade said. “That day I stood there, I was a very broken man. I was homeless. I was addicted to crack cocaine. I was unemployed. I was recently released from prison, and the only things I owned were the clothes on my back.”

Meade had served time in prison on a felony drug charge and was struggling with how to get his life back together. He eventually entered a drug treatment program, which allowed him to turn his attention to regaining something else prison had taken from him, the right to vote.

“Me being a returning citizen, and not being able to vote and not having my civil rights restored… there was a level of pain that I had that others didn’t.

And because of that intimacy with the pain, then there’s a level of commitment to ending the pain.”

Meade is executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the organization that launched the Amendment 4 ballot initiative in Florida to restore the voting rights of formerly-incarcerated felons.

The ballot initiative came after years of roadblocks and setbacks from the courts and the governor’s office that left the organization with no other choice but to go directly to the people.

And it worked. Amendment 4 passed in 2018 with nearly 65% of the vote. Meade is proud of the fact that the FRRC built a broad coalition on a positive message — a breath of fresh air in a divisive political landscape.

“We had support from Democrats, Republicans, independents, young, old, white, Black, Latino. It didn’t matter,” Meade said. “The votes that we got were not based on hate or fear, but votes that were based on love, forgiveness, and redemption.”

Reclaiming Idaho

Luke Mayville grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, a small town near the northern tip of Idaho. He left the area to study political science at Yale but came back to organize a ballot initiative campaign with his friends Garrett and Emily Strizich on what the group felt was the state’s most pressing issue — expanding access to Medicaid for roughly 60,000 people in the state.

On paper, the odds were stacked against them running a campaign on something typically seen as a progressive issue in a deep red state. But Mayville sensed that there might be an opportunity to build a coalition, just like Meade did in Florida.

So they painted a camper bright green with “Medicaid for Idaho” on the sides, and they hit the road talking to anyone who would listen about the state’s healthcare system and how expanding Medicaid would improve it.

“And we would start a conversation with people generally by saying something like, ‘What do you think of getting healthcare in Idaho? Has it been a good experience?’ People almost universally said no,” Mayville said. “It always felt like enough people were willing to talk to us and that they thought what we were doing was worthwhile.”

The Medicaid expansion initiative passed in 2018, and it led to similar ballot measures in other conservative states like Nebraska, Utah, and Oklahoma. Mayville and his friends formed the organization Reclaim Idaho, which is now working on a ballot initiative to increase the state’s education funding.

Mayville said that media narratives around political divides often overlook the areas of commonality voters have on issues that impact them.

Ballot initiatives are the perfect way to harness those common interests to make political progress.

“It’s really important for us to recognize that progressive issues have shown themselves to be popular in red states,” Mayville said. “We found that when you focus on these bread and butter issues that impact people’s basic quality of life, you can build a majority coalition around issues that are typically considered progressive.”

Looking to the Future

This November will bring another major test for ballot initiatives as voters weigh in on a constitutional amendment that would make reproductive freedom part of Michigan’s state’s constitution.

As of July 22, the Reproductive Freedom for All campaign had collected the signatures necessary to qualify the measure for the ballot, pending verification from the Secretary of State. If confirmed, voters will see the issue in November’s general election.

Reproductive rights will also be on the ballot in California, Vermont, Kentucky, and Montana. Other issues that voters will decide on this fall include a minimum wage increase in Nevada, marijuana legalization in Maryland, and education funding in Idaho.

Want to learn more?

If you want to understand how ballot initiatives are being used to advance civil rights and social justice issues, check out the important work of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and The Fairness Project. Both organizations are helping everyday people just like Katie, Luke, and Desmond organize ballot initiative campaigns in their states and cities.

And finally, check out When the People Decide — a production of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State — to learn more about how ballot initiatives have shaped American democracy.

If you have ideas for the show’s second season, please get in touch!

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Jenna Spinelle

Jenna Spinelle

Writer, podcaster, and speaker in higher education. I love a good story and believe that everyone has one to tell.