On November 8, around 170 million United States (US) voters were called to the polls for the midterm elections, but while the world focuses on the House majority it is easy to forget that in 37 states voters were also asked to decide on 139 ballot questions. Ballotpedia keeps close tabs on both the elections and initiatives. We spoke to Ballotpedia’s Jackie Mitchell about the trends in the 2022 midterms and direct democracy in the US.
- This article was written and published before the vote and updated with the results afterwards -
American voters are regularly called upon not only to choose their representatives from the federal all the way down to the local level, but also to decide on specific ballot measures. On the state level, ballot measures can either be referred to the voter by state legislatures or be initiated by citizens. On the federal level, ballot measures do not exist in the US.
This year, 132 ballot measures were up for a vote in 37 states. 30 were initiated by citizens and 109 were referred by state legislatures. Ballotpedia closely monitors the latest developments on ballot measures and this year several trends can be discerned.
After Roe v Wade abortion regulation goes to the state level
One topic that is high on the political agenda is abortion. “It is the highest number of abortion-related ballots in a single year,” says Jackie Mitchell, “It has been a topic for state-wide measures since the seventies. In fact, since 2000 there have been just two general elections where there have been no abortion-related measures, but this year we have six. Of course, this is happening because of the United States Supreme Court decision to basically overturn Roe v. Wade and give that power to legislate on abortion to the states.”
In Kansas and Kentucky, state legislators this year moved to explicitly include that there is no right to abortion in their constitution. The Kansas ballot was already defeated by voters on 2 August. In Montana, state legislators want to go one step further and award legal personhood to an "infant born alive at any stage of development". On the other hand, in California and Vermont, legislators want to enshrine the right to abortion in their constitutions. This is also the proposed change in Michigan, the only citizen-initiated ballot on the matter. “That’s not to say there haven’t been abortion ballot measures proposed through direct democracy, there have,” says Jackie Mitchell, “But we’re seeing a very low amount of citizens’ initiatives qualifying for the ballots in the states. Mostly due to signature gathering costs.”
Repealing the last vestiges of slavery
Other topics that have made it onto the ballot in several states are the legalisation of marijuana (five states) - these measures are in most cases citizen-initiated, changes to voting laws (seven states) and finally changes to criminal punishment (five states). The latter are a relatively new topic to be put to a vote Jackie explains. “Basically, state constitutions are mirrored off of the US constitution, and the Constitution says ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime (…) shall exist in the United States’ - A lot of states are moving to repeal this language in their state constitutions, arguing that slavery and involuntary servitude should not be allowed under any circumstances. The only opposition these amendments are drawing is from prisons who say that this could interfere with their prison working programmes.”
Increasing difficulties for direct democracy
Direct democracy itself was also on the ballot in four states: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado and South Dakota. In all four states, it would have become more difficult to run a successful citizens’ initiative if the measures passed. In Arizona and Arkansas, legislators were asking voters to raise the approval quorum to 60% for some or all ballot measures. A similar measure was already denied by voters in South Dakota this summer.
In Arizona, legislators also wanted initiatives for which part was struck down by the state or federal supreme court to be declared entirely invalid. All of these measures were proposed by state legislators.
An especially worrying development is that the number of ballot measures has been in steady decline over the past years. Especially the number of citizen-initiated ballot measures has dwindled dramatically. Jackie Mitchell explains that this is most likely due to the exponential rise in costs over the past years, making the price of running a signature-gathering campaign prohibitively high.
“In 2016 we had 76 citizens’ initiatives to qualify for the ballot and it cost them all together 78 million dollars, so it comes down to about one million dollar per initiative,” she explains, “This year we only have 30 initiatives that made it onto the ballot, and it cost those campaigns 118 million dollars together. So that’s an average cost of four million dollars to put an initiative on the ballot now.”
What have citizens themselves put on the ballot?
So which citizens’ initiatives did manage to clear the hurdle? “It’s really varied, Mitchell explains, “In California alone, it goes from legalising sports betting on American Indian lands, a ban on flavoured tobacco products to a tax on income above two million dollars to be put towards zero-emissions vehicles,…”
Another trend we’re seeing are alcohol-related initiatives, often funded by companies with a vested interest. “In Colorado, three initiatives qualified for the ballot that deal with alcohol regulations. One of the measures would increase the number of retail liquor stores that a liquor store owner can have, and along with that they want to allow wine sales in grocery stores. That is being hugely funded by these apps that will go get wine for you and bring it to your house. The same campaign qualified an initiative to allow for alcohol delivery services, so those two kind of go hand-in-hand.”
Asked about the most remarkable initiative on the ballot, Mitchell says, “In Colorado we have a citizens’ initiative to create a psychedelic plants and fungi, mushroom clinic of sorts. Oregon passed that initiative in 2020. This Colorado proposition 122 would create what they call ‘a natural medicine services programme’ so that people would have regulated access to dimethyltryptamine, ibogaine, mescaline (excluding peyote), psilocybin, and psilocyn and it would also decriminalise the possession and personal use of these substances, but it would not see the introduction of retail sales such as what we see with marijuana in the US. It would just be designated healing centres.”
Article photo: Protesters in San Francico earlier this year after the Supreme Court overturned the long-standing constitutional protection for abortion guaranteed by the Roe v. Wade ruling. California is one of the states where voters will be able to decide whether or not to protect the right to abortion in their state constitution.
Photo courtesy of Dan Ryan https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictopticon/52078565299/in/album-72177720299001602/ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)