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Issue 1

Direct Democracy Is Upending the GOP’s Radical Agenda

Republicans lost a big ballot initiative fight in Ohio this week, but their war against voters is destined to continue.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Ohio Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose lost his bid to change the rules of Ohio’s ballot initiatives on Tuesday night.

The most common argument for raising the threshold to pass a citizen-led ballot initiative goes something like this: Raising the required percentage of votes “protects [a state] Constitution from deep-pocketed, out-of-state interests.” That’s the exact language Republicans used in Ohio this week in their attempt to pass Issue 1, which would have raised the threshold required for constitutional amendments—from a simple majority to 60 percent of the vote.

But citizen-led ballot initiatives—often referred to as a form of direct democracy—are widely popular. That’s why Ohio Republicans scheduled their recent vote in the political exhaustion of August: in hopes of depressing turnout. This plan did not come to fruition: Massive turnout resulted in a blowout win on Tuesday night for the side seeking to preserve the status quo, paving the way for Ohioans to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution by a simple majority vote in November.

In the press, the Ohio vote was treated as a referendum on abortion because, for all intents and purposes, that was the end it served. Republicans hoped to increase the threshold to 60 percent solely to have a chance at defeating an upcoming ballot initiative amending the Ohio Constitution and enshrining Ohioans’ right “to make and carry out [their] own reproductive decisions.” But abortion is widely popular too. That’s why Kansas Republicans scheduled their special election on abortion in August 2022 as well. Things didn’t go as they’d planned: In that year, there were six ballot measures dealing with abortion. In every single case, voters sided with the pro-choice opinion.

Finding themselves on the unpopular side of kitchen-table issues—and facing the backlash of motivated voters—Republicans around the country have taken steps to limit the potential of direct democracy as voter-supported measures like abortion, cannabis, minimum-wage increases, and Medicaid expansion become more common on the ballot. And Republicans have largely remained on message, insisting that limiting their constituents’ ability to change their constitution is necessary for the protection of their constituents.

A Republican state senator in North Dakota who proposed a 2023 resolution to increase the threshold from a simple majority to 60 percent told a Senate panel, “Our constitution is being changed by out-of-state monies and out-of-state residents.” In Arkansas, the Republican state representative sponsoring a similar measure in 2022 said, “Our initiative and constitutional amendment process is really susceptible to big-money out of state interests.”

Republicans in Missouri were more honest about their motivations—the Republican House speaker said, “If the Senate fails to take action on [ballot initiative] reform, I think the Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return to Missouri.” In order to thwart the will of their voters, Missouri Republicans hoped to raise the threshold on ballot initiatives to 57 percent. When that attempt failed, the Republican Senate president promised that limiting Missourians’ ability to amend their constitution will be a legislative priority in the 2024 session.

The only state that currently requires a 60 percent threshold to pass constitutional amendments is Florida, which raised its requirement in 2006. At the time, Republicans argued—you’ll never guess—“ballot initiatives have become a vehicle for well-financed special interest groups to protect their interests via the state’s most sacred document.” Ironically, the top donor for the effort to increase the threshold was the National Association of Home Builders, which you might justifiably characterize as a “well-financed special interest group.”

In reality, Florida increased its threshold for constitutional amendments because then-Governor Jeb Bush spent years fighting a citizen-approved amendment to build a high-speed rail system across the state. Bush eventually succeeded in scrapping the project and then, as a final power grab, ensured Floridians would have a more difficult time amending their constitution in the future. It’s another spot of dark irony that the Florida amendment to increase the voter threshold to 60 percent passed with only 57 percent of the vote.

It’s tempting to dismiss the Republican efforts to limit the effectiveness of ballot initiatives as simply another facet of their anti-democracy policies. However, the effort to limit citizens’ access to their constitutions is, to some extent, a bipartisan problem. Professor John G. Matsusaka of the University of Southern California, who authored the book Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge, told me that “both parties attempt to chip away at direct democracy but Republicans do it a lot more … and especially in the last 20 years, it’s been almost all Republicans doing this.”

In a recent paper studying the backsliding of direct democracy over the past six decades, Matsusaka found that “62 percent of anti-direct democracy proposals originated from Republican-controlled legislatures, 17 percent from Democratic-controlled legislatures, and the rest from divided legislatures.” In California, Democrats in the State Assembly recently passed a bill that would require at least 10 percent of signature collectors to be unpaid volunteers. The bill’s democratic sponsor told the Los Angeles Times that California’s ballot initiative system has been “subverted by a small, disgruntled, well-funded, well-powered set of interests that often undermine the collective will of the people of California.”

Jeb Bush remains the only governor who has successfully increased the threshold to pass ballot measures. However, other Republican governors have shown disregard for ballot measures whenever their constituents implement constitutional amendments that they don’t care for. In South Dakota, 54 percent of voters approved an amendment to legalize recreational marijuana. Governor Kristi Noem threw it out on a technicality, and the South Dakota Supreme Court—which has been appointed entirely by Republican governors—sided with Noem.

Noem’s government has previously attempted to increase the threshold for ballot measures related to taxes. A proposed 2022 amendment—which has its roots in South Dakota’s citizen-led effort to expand Medicaid—would have required a 60 percent majority to increase taxes. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the amendment, and South Dakota’s boosted Medicaid system later expanded health care to over 52,000 South Dakotans. Medicaid expansion is similar to reproductive rights, cannabis reform, and minimum-wage increases, in that it’s increasingly found traction on the ballot. Voters in several Republican states have recently used direct democracy to expand their Medicaid systems. Similarly, in the past 10 years, there have been 14 ballot measures to increase the minimum wage. All of them have passed.

Like the Kansas vote on abortion a year ago, the Ohio vote yielded a much higher voter turnout than Republicans had hoped for. And make no mistake: The defeat of Ohio’s Issue 1 is undoubtedly due to that large turnout. However, there’s little evidence to show that ballot measures drive turnout in general elections. In the upcoming general election—which seems destined for a rematch between Biden and Trump—experts generally agree that ballot measures’ effect on turnout will be difficult to quantify as the top of the ticket offers such a divisive matchup.

But that doesn’t negate the importance of ballot issues or their effect on the political landscape. Professor Daniel Smith of the University of Florida told me that ballot measures “have these spillover effects; it could be not only turnout but increasing political knowledge and civic engagement. Increasing political participation more generally because citizens are now being asked to exercise their voice.”

On Tuesday, Ohioans turned out in droves to exercise their voices and to retain their ability to exercise their voices. The early voting figures alone tell a story—at least 578,490 Ohioans turned in early ballots for the Issue 1 vote. Only 288,700 Ohioans voted early in the 2022 election, according to The Columbus Dispatch. But while the effort to limit direct democracy was defeated in Ohio, there’s no indication that Republicans are likely to slow their efforts to silence the will of their constituents. Sarah Walker, director of policy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, told me: “From that very beginning point when you file [a ballot initiative], we’re seeing legal challenges starting almost immediately. And we’re seeing it at every step throughout the process. And furthermore, once an initiative is voted on and is meant to be enacted, we are watching significant attempts to undermine the intent of the ballot initiatives by legislatures.”

Some of those challenges—like Kristi Noem’s fight to keep citizen-approved cannabis illegal in South Dakota—have been successful. In Missouri, voters expanded Medicaid and the Republican-controlled General Assembly refused to fund the expansion. But legislatures’ attempts to fight the wills of their constituents is not a new phenomenon. Professor Matsusaka’s study found a burst of anti–direct democracy measures between 1995 and 2005. Of course, the political landscape of America is much different than it was at the turn of the century. Voters are more engaged. The 2020 election featured the second-highest percentage of voter participation in American history. And in post-Roe America, there’s no indication that voters are more likely to stay home—even if Republicans in Ohio, and other state legislatures around the country, dearly wish that they would.