Progressives Plot Ballot Initiative Strategy To Roll Back GOP Laws

WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by grassroots energy from the protests in Wisconsin earlier this year, progressives are now planning an offensive strategy. Organizers are eyeing 2011 and 2012 elections as opportunities to put initiatives on the ballot that would overturn some of the measures passed by GOP legislatures and governors. The first three states likely to see fights are Ohio, Idaho and Maine.

Justine Sarver is executive director at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), a national organization providing resources for progressive ballot measures. Her involvement fighting right wing-initiatives started in 1996, and in 2005 and 2006, she led two successful campaigns to defeat California's Propositions 73 and 85, which would have imposed more stringent restrictions on abortion.

"Over the last 30 years, conservatives and corporate interests really pushed ballot initiatives that affect working families," said Sarver. "All of the critical public services, environmental protections and the rights of women, immigrants and minorities have been under attack in many states across the country."

"What we're trying to do at BISC is help progressives turn the tide," she explained. "But it's not going to happen during one election cycle."

Indeed, progressives find themselves spending resources to defeat conservative ballot initiatives across the country each election season. In 2010, one of the greatest progressive victories was beating back California Proposition 23, a measure that would have gutted the state's landmark climate change bill. While a significant win, it still put the left on the defense.

Over the past couple decades, conservatives have won the significant victories at the ballot box through the initiative process.

In 1992, Colorado voters adopted the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), a state constitutional amendment that severely restricted the state's ability to raise taxes. Since then, similar measures have been pushed in other states and localities. A group of current and former lawmakers have filed a lawsuit against the Colorado TABOR.

In 2008, the big news was California voters approving Proposition 8, which approved a ban on same-sex marriage in the state. The law was later overturned by a federal district judge, but that decision is currently under appeal.

Also in 2008, Michigan approved Proposal 2, which prohibited affirmative action at the state's public colleges and in government contracting. The proposal was spearheaded by Ward Connerly, one of the nation's most high-profile opponents of affirmative action. Connerly quickly took his battle to other states, deploying an aggressive multi-state approach often used by other conservatives pushing ballot measures.

In 2012, Sarver said, citizens will be pushing back on controversial measures passed by GOP-dominated state governments. Republicans gained significantly more power at the state and national level after electoral wins in 2010.

"We're excited that the [ballot initiative] process this year is being used to be a check on what has been way too much power in the hands of one party in these state legislatures," she said.

The Wisconsin state constitution allows voters to hold recall elections on any of their elected public officials, and they did, voting two Republicans out of office this month. Most states, however, don't have a recall provision. Instead, many states offer citizens the ability to offer a public vote on a specific policy matter through ballot initiatives.


Next to Wisconsin, the most high-profile labor protests during the winter and spring were in Ohio, where citizens turned out against SB 5, a measure that restricts collective bargaining rights for state employees, among other provisions.

Melissa Fazekas, spokeswoman for We Are Ohio -- the labor coalition that has been leading opposition to the law -- said part of what frustrated Ohioans was feeling shut out of the legislative process.

"People were denied the right to testify against the bill. People were actually locked out of the statehouse. They were outside, in the cold, chanting, 'Let us in,'" said Fazekas. "I met one woman last week who actually found an open window to climb in through to try to get into the statehouse, to be part of the process, to let her voice be heard."

Ohio voters will find a referendum on SB 5 -- called Issue 2 -- on their ballots this November.

Fazekas is optimistic about winning the fight to repeal SB 5, pointing to the enthusiasm for the effort thus far.

According to Fazekas, more than 10,000 people volunteered to collect signatures to qualify Issue 2 for the November ballot. They were required to obtain 231,149 signatures, with a certain percentage from at least 44 counties in the state. Their campaign wound up with more 915,000 signatures certified, above the needed percentage from all 88 of Ohio's counties.

Last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) proposed meeting with We Are Ohio to reach a compromise on amending the legislation -- in return for yanking Issue 2 from the ballot.

"We have a fleeting opportunity in Ohio to take the high road," wrote Kasich and the two Republican leaders of the state legislature. "We are prepared to move forward immediately with legislative action to implement any agreement on changes we are able to reach together."

Labor leaders did not attend the meeting Kasich proposed last week, saying they will keep Issue 2 on the ballot.


Idaho voters will be considering whether to reject three education measures in November 2012.

SB 1108 restricts teachers' collective bargaining rights and ends tenure for new teachers, SB 1184 funds the purchase of technology and laptops for students from the pot of money used to pay teachers' salaries and SB 1110 implements a merit pay system for teachers.

This spring, educators and students in Idaho turned out at the statehouse to protest the measures, which were introduced by Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.

Penni Cyr, president of the state teachers' union, the Idaho Education Association, told The Huffington Post that the laws were an overreach by some conservatives in the legislature and were even opposed by some Republican members.

"We had 13 Republicans join the 13 Democrats in the Senate to oppose SB 1184, which was the one that trades teachers for technology," said Cyr. "One out of four teachers in Idaho could ultimately lose their jobs because of the money that is being moved to pay for technology."

Like Fazekas, Cyr pointed to the fact that organizers were able to get far more signatures than were necessary to qualify for referendums on the ballot.

"We needed a little less [than] 48,000 signatures ... to place each of these laws on the ballot in November 2012. We actually gathered ... a little under 75,000 per ballot measure," she said.

Luna is standing behind his laws.

"We knew the referendum was a possibility, but I remain confident that a majority of Idahoans support education reform in Idaho," he told The Huffington Post in May.

"Repealing these laws would mean a return to the status quo, where the hands of local school boards are tied, educators receive tenure, the state distributes retirement bonuses, every teacher is paid the exact same, staffing decisions are made solely based on seniority, and classrooms remain stuck in the 20th century," he said. "This isn’t the answer to the challenges we face in education today. The burden of proof should be on those who want to defend the status quo, not on those who want to change it."

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) has vowed to personally campaign against the ballot measures, saying, "We're going to do our level best to make sure that the correct information gets out."


In Maine, a coalition is working to reinstate same-day voter registration after Gov. Paul LePage (R) signed a bill overturning the 38-year-old law in June.

The registration deadline was pushed back to two business days before election day.

Maine citizens have the ability to essentially veto a law by ballot initiative. The Protect Maine Votes coalition -- 18 groups that include unions, civil libertarians, consumer advocates and homeless groups -- has turned in more than enough signatures to meet the 57,277-signature threshold to get the measure on the ballot in November, but it is waiting for the state to certify that they are valid.

"Maine has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country. It's something we're very proud of in the state," explained Mike Tipping of the Maine People's Alliance, a progressive group involved in the citizens' veto fight.

"There's a strong political culture of grassroots democracy here, with New England town hall meetings, referendums and things like that," Tipping said. "So when Republicans in the legislature and our new governor targeted the elimination of same-day voter registration, it got a lot of people angry and excited. It passed by a very small margin on a party-line vote, and we immediately took out papers to challenge it with a people's veto."

Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting (R-Oakland) has defended the right of Mainers to use the citizens' veto process, although he is confident they won't succeed in repealing the law.

"Here in Maine, the people's veto is part of our democratic process, and the extreme left-wing groups and individuals behind this signature-gathering effort have every right to try to pursue it," he said in a statement to the Associated Press.

"At this point, it's too early to tell whether they have enough valid signatures to get the question on the ballot. If they do, I'm confident that Maine voters will reject it."

When asked by The Huffington Post whether Nutting would actively campaign against the referendum, spokesman James Cyr said that since the Secretary of State's Office was still validating the signatures, it was too early to speculate.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article suggested California Proposition 85 was defeated in 1996, the year Justine Sarver got involved in fighting right wing-initiatives. Proposition 85 was voted down in 2006.

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