It’s no secret that both parties – although increasingly Republicans – leverage gerrymandering and voter suppression to consolidate power and control policy. In conservative-leaning states, those strategies, combined with political geography, have allowed the GOP to gain near complete control of government. In many cases there are few remaining checks on their power, especially as courts become more politicized and partisan. In these states, referendums and initiatives – forms of direct democracy, where voters get to vote on policy decisions themselves – are one of the last ways that voters can ensure policy actually reflects their preferences. Recent data suggest Republicans are trying to cement power in red states by making it harder for citizens to circumvent the GOP-controlled legislatures.
During the early 2000s, GOP legislatures largely ignored laws and regulations around direct democracy. In the five federal election cycles from 2010 to 2018, state legislatures passed about 2.5 laws per cycle that restricted referendums and ballot initiatives. But in 2020 and 2022, as it became more clear that direct democracy was being leveraged to overturn or stop some of the most unpopular GOP policies, GOP legislatures passed anywhere from 16 to more than 30, depending on how you classify the laws. Even at the low-end assessment of 8 per cycle, that’s a clear increase and a deviation from the norm.
The laws pushing back against direct democracy come in a variety of forms. The Idaho legislature in 2021 passed a law requiring that those attempting to get an initiative on the ballot collect signatures from voters in a wide variety of legislative districts, which empowers Idaho’s rural, right-leaning populations. Utah and Arkansas enacted laws banning “pay-per-signature,” a process in which groups attempting to get a ballot measure on the ballot can pay people to collect the needed signatures. Arizona placed restrictions on who can collect signatures and required non-citizen circulators to register with the Secretary of State’s office. Most disturbingly, the South Dakota and Arkansas legislatures attempted to get voters to change laws around ballot measures so that they needed a 60% supermajority to pass instead of the normal 50.1%.
It’s no coincidence that voters in these states recently approved measures that don’t align with the GOP platform. Voters in Idaho in 2018 approved Medicaid expansion. Voters in Arkansas had voted to create an independent redistricting commission. Arizonans had just leveraged the initiative system to legalize marijuana. South Dakotans had voted to both legalize medical marijuana and expand Medicaid.
Advocates for the GOP’s direct democracy crackdown likely point to a few concerns with the existing ballot measure ecosystem, some of which are justified. At the fundamental level, many, including quite a few framers of our constitution and country, had issues with direct democracy. Alexander Hamilton was vehemently opposed. James Madison wrote about his distaste several times, most notably in Federalist Paper No. 10, where he writes about concerns around factions forming majorities and infringing upon the rights of minorities. This is certainly a valid concern. As recently as 2008, in far-left California nonetheless, voters leveraged the initiative system to ban same-sex marriage. Others might make an argument in favor of keeping government in the hands of experts.
At a less theoretical level, there are plenty of valid issues with the modern-day direct democracy environment. John Diaz summed these complaints up well in an editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008: “There is no big secret to the formula for manipulating California’s initiative process. Find a billionaire benefactor with the ideological motivation or crass self-interest to spend the $1-million plus to get something on the ballot with mercenary signature gatherers. Today, the initiative process is no longer the antidote to special interests and the moneyed class; it is their vehicle of choice to attempt to get their way without having to endure the scrutiny and compromise of the legislative process.”
While Diaz’s complaints are legitimate, most of these arguments are poor justification for the GOP’s recent attempts to take power away from voters. Madison’s concerns aren’t applicable to the current situation, in fact, quite the opposite. Voters in red states aren’t using ballot measures to impose the will of the majority on a vulnerable minority, but are using it to rise up against representatives whose policies don’t reflect the will of the majority. The representatives, ironically, are a minority imposing their will. The desire to keep policy in the hands of experts is again valid but possibly an even poorer crutch for the GOP to lean on. When red state voters have overruled their GOP legislators, it’s often been to make policy more aligned with expert recommendations. In addition to Medicaid expansion and legalization of medical marijuana, both of which are supported by experts, voters have recently leveraged ballot measures to save common-sense abortion rights, which align with medical best practices.
To be clear, there are undoubtedly areas where the direct democracy process could be improved. Modern issues around dark money & financing, special interests, and advertising must be addressed. But that is not what the GOP is attempting to do.
President Theodore Roosevelt said “I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.” The uses of direct democracy in red states are not some abuse of the system like Diaz wrote about in California. They’re what Roosevelt embraced: a legitimate effort to correct misrepresentation. The GOP’s recent efforts to take this power away from citizens is an obvious attempt to ensure complete control of unchecked power in red states.