Tent Talk: Aaron Frank and Anton Moore Under the Tent

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Tuesday, June 25, 2024, 12:00 pm EDT

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The Battle for Direct Democracy

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Having already succeeded in the deeply undemocratic practice of gerrymandering, increasingly, GOP-dominated state legislatures are turning their focus on curtailing people’s access to direct democracy through ballot measures such as ballot initiatives or referenda.  The success of post-Dobbs ballot measures ensuring the right to an abortion has fueled the right-wing’s assault on ballot measures.  This comes as no surprise given the observation of The Fairness Project’s Kelly Hall that  “[b]allot measures remain the one true muscle that the people still have to flex.”

Direct democracy was not favored by the founders, who opted for representative democracy to guard against the tyranny of the majority.  Progressive Theodore Roosevelt popularized ballot initiatives as a means to “modernize” the country and combat corruption in state governments.  Since then all 50 states permit ballot initiatives of one sort or another. Ballot initiatives can offer a critical control on state legislatures captured by the likes of ALEC, legislating to entrench their own power rather than acting in the interest of the electorate. Were they around today, our founding fathers would doubtless be at least as fearful of the tyranny of ALEC (and other dark money groups) as they were of the majority.

Efforts to restrict access to ballot initiatives include erecting simple barriers, such as raising requirements for votes or signatures, adding requirements about the number of counties that must be represented, limiting the topics that can be addressed by ballot initiatives and even by attempting (but failing) to restrict fundraising for ballot initiatives.  A common argument against ballot measures is that they permit out of state money to control what goes on within a state.  This is somewhat ironic given the control wielded by groups like ALEC. 

What can I do?

Educate others.  A ballot initiative on a topic such as abortion, the minimum wage or legalization of marijuana will garner attention and support.  In contrast, a ballot measure on ballot initiatives is far less likely to generate interest let alone to be understood.  Most people are not following this kind of inside-baseball stuff. It is vital to ensure that people appreciate the importance of protecting democracy by preventing further incursions on ballot initiatives. We have already witnessed the devastation to democracy wreaked by this nation’s disinterest and lack of understanding about the importance of local elections.  If we want to be able to end gerrymandering, we need to protect the right to direct action.

For more information or to take action, consider working with the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center to protect democracy by opposing restrictions to ballot initiatives in states across the country.