This November, 65 citizen-initiated ballot measures and 82 legislatively referred questions will be up for a vote in 37 states. Citizens have placed de-incarceration, voter protections, new taxes on the rich, and climate justice on the table. They have also, to a lesser extent, put regressive measures on the ballot, including anti-migrant legislation and reforms that benefit the fossil-fuel industry. This year progressives are the offensive, especially in red states as reformers try to bypass Republican-controlled state legislators. But rollbacks backed by corporations lurk in states that lean blue like Colorado.
Statewide ballot initiatives were established in the early part of the 20th century as a way to counter the influence of corporate monopolies and moneyed interests. Some of the first citizen initiatives abolished poll taxes, gave women the right to vote, and funded public higher education. Eventually, big business and conservatives learned to use it for their own ends, pouring millions of dollars into measures that constrained the government’s taxation powers and banned marriage equality.
Today the initiative process itself is being challenged. In states like Missouri, Arizona, Maine, South Dakota, and Colorado, efforts by residents to use citizen referenda to raise the minimum wage, limit fracking, and regulate campaign contributions have elicited backlashes from corporate interests and state legislators, who are now trying to limit or overrule direct democracy. Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, told The Nation that in 2017 and 2018 there have been over a 100 of pieces of proposed legislation across the country to “undermine the ballot-measure process.”
Here’s a list of most important measures of 2018.
Ohio — De-Incarceration Through Drug Sentencing Reform
Ohio’s Issue 1, or “Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative,” would amend the state constitution to reduce all felony nonviolent drug-possession offenses to misdemeanors. The measure would end jailing people for noncriminal probation violations and create a “sentence-credits program” to allow nonviolent inmates to reduce their sentences when they participate in work or educational programs. Issue 1 would reduce the state’s prison population and requires the state to spend the money it saves through de-incarceration on drug treatment, victim recovery, and other programs. The measure has become a political flashpoint ahead of the election; the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court wrote an op-ed warning that if it passes, people will die and the state could become a “magnet” for drug users.
Washington — Redistributive Climate Policy
I-1631 is showing that a powerful political coalition can be built to advance climate policy. Tribal, labor, environmental, social, and racial-justice groups came together to draft the measure, which is anchored by a redistributive carbon fee. The $15 per ton fee on carbon would raise billions in new revenue from on-road fuels and “large emitters” like refineries and electric utilities. The funds would go toward reducing emissions and adapting to climate change. Seventy percent would go toward clean energy and energy-efficiency investments, 25 percent is earmarked for natural resources like forests and water, and the final 5 percent would go toward job training and helping communities transition to a fossil-free economy. Ten percent of the funds must be spent on projects with formal support from a tribal nation and 35 percent for communities most impacted by pollution, which means low-income and rural areas and communities of color. It sets heightened labor protection and wage standards for employers it gives money to, and builds an alliance with current fossil-fuel employees by helping with their pensions and/or training for renewable energy jobs. The fossil-fuel industry is spending millions to defeat it, though polling suggests a tight race. To learn more, read Sasha Abramsky’s report for The Nation.
Louisiana — Repealing Jim Crow–Era Jury Law
Shortly after former slaves won their freedom and the right to serve on juries, Louisiana convened a state constitutional convention to, in the president of the convention’s words, “perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.” The constitution allowed for non-unanimous juries, which were explicitly designed to disempower black jurors who would otherwise be able to veto racist prosecutions. Oregon is the only other state to allow for non-unanimous juries in felony cases. In Louisiana, public pressure forced the Republican-controlled legislature to place this referendum on the ballot.
Florida — Felony Voter Restoration
The Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative would restore the right to vote for 1.4 million Floridians who are currently disenfranchised because they have a felony on their record. A coalition of groups gathered an astounding 1 million signatures to get this constitutional amendment on the ballot. The signature drive was helped by innovative tactics like StayWoke’s direct mailing of over 133,000 petitions. (The measure does not restore voting rights to convicted murderers or felony sex offenders.)
Colorado — Corporate Proposal to Protect Private Property from Government Intervention
Colorado is a top oil- and gas-producing state. It also has one of the most accessible direct-ballot processes in the nation. As a result, over the past few years the oil-and-gas industry has spent millions opposing multiple anti-fracking ballot measures and even (successfully) pushed their own measure to amend the state Constitution to make it harder for residents to do the same. Now, the industry is pushing Amendment 74 that would compensate property owners if a law or say, environmental regulation, hurts their property value. An opposing Proposition 112 is also on the ballot, to increase the required distance between new oil/gas wells and occupied buildings.
Colorado — Taxing the Rich to Fund Public Education
Amendment 73 would replace Colorado’s current flat-income-tax system—which taxes the poor and rich at the same rate—with a tiered system to raise taxes on people who earn over $150,000 per year. It also raises the corporate income-tax rate and lowers local property taxes. The money from the new taxes would go toward a statewide education fund to be dispersed equitably to districts across the state—a shift away from a system that relies significantly on local taxes to fund schools, to the advantage of wealthier districts. The initiative, supported by the Colorado Education Association, is expected to raise $1.6 billion per year in additional funding for public education.
Massachusetts — Millionaire’s Tax to Fund Public Education and Transportation
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In Massachusetts, it is unconstitutional to tax the rich at a higher rate than the poor. A proposed ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution wanted to change that. The measure, referred to as the Fair Share Amendment, would raise taxes on millionaires by imposing an additional 4 percent tax on all income over $1 million—and devote the revenue to public education and transportation.
In an example of “preelection judicial review”—where a court rules on a ballot measure’s future constitutionality—the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the proposal was unconstitutional because raising taxes on the wealthy to fund public education and transportation did not constitute a “common purpose or unified public policy.” Residents and teachers had gathered more than 157,000 signatures to qualify the measure.
Arizona — Taxing the Rich to Fund Public Education
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The power and scope of Arizona’s ballot-initiative process has been hotly debated. Spawning from a fight over localities’ power to raise the minimum wage and a ballot measure to raise the statewide wage, the Republican-controlled legislature has moved to restrict the ballot process and make it more cumbersome. This year, a #RedForEd ballot measure to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund public education collected 270,000 signatures but was removed from the November ballot by the Arizona Supreme Court, over what appear to be technicalities. Public-school advocates were, however, able to qualify a referendum to repeal a new law that expands the use of “school vouchers,” which transfer money and students from public to charter schools.
Nevada — Automatic Voter Registration at the DMV
A rising movement thinks our society has voter registration backward. Rather than being an opt-in system, like the vast majority of states, supporters have pushed policies to make voter registration automatic (while allowing people to opt out). Question 5, placed on the ballot after residents gathered signatures, would automatically register voters at Nevada DMVs. As of July 2018, 13 states had implemented some form of automatic voter registration. Oregon, the first to pass the reform, in 2016, saw voter registration quadruple at DMVs shortly after implementation.
Michigan — Enshrining New Voter Rights
Supporters of the Promote the Vote constitutional amendment had to sue in federal court to get on November’s ballot. If passed, it would enact a host of voter-rights protections and election reforms. It would enact automatic voter registration when people get or renew a driver’s license or state ID, establish a new election-audit system, make absentee voting more accessible, create a “straight ticket” vote option, and allow people to register to vote by mail 15—rather than 30—days before an election, or up to the day of an election if they have an ID.
California — Rent Control
Since 1995, municipalities in California have been barred from regulating rent in new developments. Proposition 10, championed by tenants’-right groups, would reverse this policy and allow local governments to regulate rent. It would be a boon for the affordable-housing movement, allowing it to pass new local rent-control ordinances.
Oregon — Reactionary Proposals
Oregon has two very regressive measures on this November’s ballot. One would repeal the state’s sanctuary law, which stops state resources from being used to apprehend undocumented people. The second would stop public funds from supporting abortion access. Unable to push a hard-right agenda through the Democratic-controlled legislature and governor’s office, conservatives have taken to the ballot initiative.
South Dakota — The Ballot Process Itself
In 2016, South Dakota voters approved a resident-initiated ballot proposal to limit campaign contributions and institute a publicly funded campaign-finance program. A few months later, the state legislature overruled the vote, repealing the law—sparking a fight over the power of ballot initiatives. Now, the future of the ballot process itself is up for a vote this November. Two constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the state legislature would add restraints to the process. A third, placed on the ballot by residents, would safeguard the process and make it easier for citizen initiatives to amend the state constitution.
North Carolina — A GOP-Controlled Legislature Tries to Sidestep the Courts
In 2017, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s restrictive voter-ID law as intentionally discriminatory. The Republican-controlled legislature has doubled down and placed a question on the ballot to enshrine the voter-suppression tactic in the state constitution.
Missouri — Minimum-Wage Politics
The ballot process has become central to Missouri politics as the state legislature has drifted ever more to the right. After the Republican-controlled legislature passed “right to work” in 2017, unions and residents gathered 300,000 signatures to halt its implementation and put the issue to a vote of the people. In August 2018, voters vetoed the law 67 to 33 percent. The state also effectively lowered the minimum wage in St. Louis in 2017 and preempted all other municipalities from trying to raise the wage. (State courts have even ruled that city residents are not allowed to vote on the minimum wage.) Now, a watered-down proposal to raise the statewide minimum wage to $12 by 2023 is up for a vote. Another measure, to lower campaign contribution limits, reform the state’s redistricting process, and institute ethic reforms so legislators can’t immediately be hired as lobbyist is also on the ballot.
Maine — Universal Home Care
Service Employees International Union, which represents home-care workers, has gone on the offensive by proposing a ballot measure to establish state-funded free home care to all Mainers above the age of 65 or disabled. The measure would set up a new tax to fund the state’s Universal Home Care Program.
Arizona + Nevada — Billionaire-Backed Renewable-Energy Mandates
Billionaire Tom Steyer is spending millions to pass measures in sun-soaked Arizona and Nevada to require electric utilities in the states to produce 50 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2030.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said the ethics-reform ballot measure in Missouri would not be on the ballot. Petitioners won their appeal, and the initiative was placed back on the ballot in late September. The text has been corrected.