Paul Spencer, a teacher and part-time pecan farmer in Arkansas, drafted a ballot measure for 2016 to reform the state’s campaign finance laws so his fellow voters could know who paid for election ads on TV.
But he and fellow activists there knew they couldn’t do it alone. They sought the help of national election-reform groups because in Arkansas, as in many other states, initiatives can cost millions of dollars to pass.
Liberal groups working at the national level are using state ballot initiatives as their weapon of choice for 2016, but given the costs, they’re carefully planning exactly where to push these measures. And Spencer’s Arkansas proposal didn’t make the cut for 2016.
That top-down approach seems ironic. The initiative process was put in place at the beginning of the 20th century as a way for local citizens such as Spencer to band together to pass laws. And voters on the ground may not be aware that national groups are helping fuel the ballot fights in their backyards.
Still, national liberal leaders see state ballot measures as their best option for winning on some issues. Dismayed at their prospects in Congress and in Republican-dominated state legislatures, national liberal groups plan to use ballot initiatives to push raising the minimum wage in Maine, legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts, closing gun sale loopholes in Nevada, guarding endangered species in Oregon — and other campaigns in at least eight additional states.
National conservative groups, meanwhile, seem poised to play defense, setting up a battle of outsiders on state playing fields. In March, Republican-linked politicos launched the Center for Conservative Initiatives in Washington, D.C., to counter the liberal ballot measures they anticipate will arrive in record numbers nationwide in 2016.
“Liberal groups have been forced to spend heavily on ballot initiatives in an effort to circumvent elected representatives because in states around the country the public has overwhelmingly rejected their out-of-touch candidates and messages,” said the Center’s leader, Matt Walter, in an email.
The push from outsiders to pass pet policies via the ballot has occurred before, on everything from land conservation in North Dakota to how to cage chickens in California, sometimes leading to big-money fights between corporations, advocacy groups and others.
“There’s this perception out there that the initiative process is all about the little guy,” said Jennie Bowser, a consultant who for many years studied ballot measures for the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “But the truth of the matter is that it’s a big business. It’s really well organized, and it’s really well funded. And it is very, very rarely a group of local citizens who get together and try to make a difference.”
Passing popular ideas
In 2014, when a Republican wave gave conservatives more U.S. Senate seats and governors’ mansions, left-leaning activists still managed to notch victories for the minimum wage, gun control and marijuana legalization through ballot measures in Nebraska, South Dakota, Illinois, Arkansas, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia.
In 2015, they followed with wins for campaign-finance reform in Seattle and Maine.
Those successes, as well as the chance to draw more left-leaning voters to the polls, are encouraging liberal activists to push hard on the 2016 ballot.