In 2008, deep-blue California banned same-sex marriage. In 2018, steadfastly conservative Arkansas and Missouri increased their minimum wage. And last year, Republican-controlled Arizona and Montana legalized recreational marijuana.
These moves were all the product of ballot initiatives, a century-old fixture of American democracy that allows voters to bypass their legislatures to enact new laws, often with results that defy the desires of the state’s elected representatives. While they have been a tool of both parties in the past, Democrats have been particularly successful in recent years at using ballot initiatives to advance their agenda in conservative states where they have few other avenues.
But this year, Republican-led legislatures in Florida, Idaho, South Dakota and other states have passed laws limiting the use of the practice, one piece of a broader G.O.P. attempt to lock in political control for years to come, along with new laws to restrict voting access and the partisan redrawing of congressional districts that will take place in the coming months.
So far in 2021, Republicans have introduced 144 bills to restrict the ballot initiative processes in 32 states, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a liberal group that tracks and assists citizen-driven referendums. Of those bills, 19 have been signed into law by nine Republican governors. In three states, Republican lawmakers have asked voters to approve ballot initiatives that in fact limit their own right to bring and pass future ballot initiatives.
66-year-old bespectacled Republican who sponsored the bill because, he said, the text of ballot initiatives is often too small for him to read. “There is no restriction on the size of the paper.”
In Mississippi last week, the conservative State Supreme Court, ruling on a Republican lawsuit, invalidated the state’s entire initiative process on a technicality, throwing out a 2020 referendum that legalized medical marijuana and halting an effort to collect signatures to place Medicaid expansion on the state’s 2022 ballot. The constitutional amendment that created the state’s initiative law was enacted in 1992, when the state had five congressional districts, and required signatures from voters in each. Mississippi has had just four districts since the 2000 census.
And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation introducing a $3,000 limit on campaign contributions to ballot initiatives — cutting off a key source of revenue to subsidize the gathering of signatures for petitions.
The Republican effort now gaining steam has been years in the making.
In South Dakota, Republicans have in recent years limited the window for collecting petition signatures to the cold winter months and required all canvassers to register with the state and wear state-issued identification cards while gathering signatures, hurdles that the state’s few Democrats say have increased the difficulty of qualifying for the ballot.
three Democrats in the 35-member State Senate. “The one place where Democrats can make progress is through the initiated measure process, and the Republicans want to take that away, too.”
Now the state’s Republican lawmakers will put before South Dakota voters a constitutional amendment to increase the threshold to pass referendums — raising it to 60 percent from a simple majority. (The threshold to raise the threshold? Still just 50 percent.)