April 2008 Page 2
Patrick J. Reilly
1513 16th Street, NWWashington, DC 20036-1480
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toral mechanism that was intended to givecitizens direct power over politics. Enthu-siasm for the ballot initiative declined af-ter World War I however and only Alaska,Florida, Mississippi, Wyoming and Wash-ington, D.C. subsequently adopted it.Although its reputation as an instru-ment of popular democracy is not entirelywarranted, the ballot initiative has servedas a citizens’ check on representative gov-ernment. According to the Initiative andReferendum Institute at the University of Southern California, states with ballot ini-tiatives have adopted roughly 40 percentof the 2,051 initiatives offered since 1904,with nearly two-thirds of them in Arizona,California, Colorado, North Dakota, Or-egon and Washington. Since the processgained renewed interest in the late 1970sand 1980s, 303 of 660 initiatives appear-ing on state ballots were passed by theirelectorates. But these numbers don’t tellthe whole story. Many proposed initia-tives never get on the ballot and many of those on the ballot do not pass. Accord-ing to the Institute, only 26 percent of allCalifornia initiatives appeared on the bal-lot—and only eight percent were ap-proved. During the 2000 election, 76 ini-tiatives appeared on state ballots, but theyrepresented only 22 percent of all the ini-tiatives offered during that year. Since1996, the number of initiatives appearingon state ballots has averaged 70 per elec-tion year, with the 1996 elections the highwater mark, when 39 of 96 state ballot ini-tiatives were adopted by voters. But com-pare this to the number of bills that areadopted by state legislatures. In 1996 thelegislatures in the 24 states that providefor a ballot initiative passed more than14,000 bills.Still ballot initiatives and popular refer-enda remain popular devices for mobiliz-ing voters. And it’s not simply that theprocess creates voter enthusiasm. Twostudies published in 2001 showed that thepresence of initiatives on the ballot canincrease voter turnout from three to fourpercent—a not statistically insignificantamount. Moreover, during the last 30 yearsthe ballot initiative process has been dis-covered by citizen groups that have usedit to their advantage.As during the Progressive Era, localactivists have found that “direct democ-racy” measures can move state policieswhen a state legislature will not act.California’s ballot initiative process, inparticular, has been dominated by conser-vative and libertarian activists seeking tocheck the excesses of the liberal-domi-nated California legislature. The state hasseen the passage of ballot initiatives cut-ting property taxes (Proposition 13 in1978), denying illegal aliens the use of public services (Proposition 187 in 1994)and repealing the use of racial and genderpreferences in state universities (Propo-sition 209 in 1996). Proposition 13 is widelycredited with jumpstarting the nationwide1980s’ taxpayer backlash that loweredtaxes through ballot initiatives and legis-lation.A Colorado constitutional amendmentbarring local authorities from expandinganti-discrimination law to include homo-sexuals was passed by popular referen-dum in 1992 before it was struck down bythe U.S. Supreme Court in
Romer v. Evans
(1996). In 2004, state constitutional amend-ments banning gay marriage were on theballot, and they passed in 11 states (Ar-kansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan,Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota,Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon and Utah). In2006, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan,Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota,Oregon and South Carolina passed ballotinitiatives limiting the use of eminent do-main, although similar measures failed inCalifornia, Idaho and Washington.Technically, some of these proposalswere not ballot initiatives because theywere legislative referrals from state legis-latures to the voters. Nevertheless, theyembody the concept of statewide voterdecision-making consistent with a ballotinitiative.
Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
Labor unions and liberal groups havewatched as conservative and libertariangroups enjoy ballot initiative successeson the economic and social fronts, andthat has spurred them to undertake a simi-lar strategy. In 2006, so-called“progressives” used state ballot initia-tives to propose renewable energy stan-dards and increases to the minimum wage.The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, witha mere $780,000 in revenue in 2006, claimedsuccess in 47 of 61 BISC-funded ballotinitiatives.In Missouri voters passed a state bal-lot initiative to fund embryonic stem cellresearch. Its presence on the ballot waswidely credited as a major factor thathelped Democrat Claire McCaskill defeatRepublican incumbent Senator Jim Talent.Proponents of the stem cell measureoutspent opponents 30-to-1, and they hadthe conspicuous support of Hollywoodstar Michael J. Fox who suffers fromParkinson’s disease. Many voters be-lieved Senator Talent was trying to“straddle the issue” because he touted hissupport for research on adult stem cellswhile opposing research on embryonicstem cells.Founded in 1999, BISC believesprogressives were caught flatfooted asconservatives used ballot initiatives toadvance their legislative goals. It intendsto turn the tables on the Right. But moreis at stake than enacting bits of legisla-tion. For BISC the process of putting ini-tiatives on the ballot is a way to “frameelection issues, increase progressive turn-out, house coordinated field operations,draw contrasts between candidates, buildvoter lists and empower progressive or-ganizations.” This is a comprehensivemission to which BISC brings an exten-sive program of operations. BISC runsdatabases that track leftwing funding forballot initiatives. It trains activists to run