The Role of Direct Democracy in a Time of Divisiveness

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This post is co-authored by Aishwarya Visweswaran

The election of President Trump and the executive orders he signed have reinvigorated citizen activism all across the country unlike ever before. There is a very strong push from Americans, from all segments of the political spectrum, to ensure that representative democracy is protected as the nation witnesses the divisive nature of President Trump’s first decisions. Aspirations for a representative democracy are even more problematic these days when the new president was elected by a minority of voters.

The U.S. has a long tradition of direct democracy precisely to allow the legislative process to be more directly representative of, and overseen by, citizen’s interests and aspirations. To be more inclusive! The first state to adopt the statewide ballot measure provision in its constitution was Idaho 125 years ago. 25 years later 88% of the states in the country had amended their constitution to allow for this form of direct democracy. Over time ballot measures have continued to be a popular means of letting citizens vote directly on new legislation and not rely exclusively on their representatives. Last November 8th, along with voting for the presidential ticket, 35 states in the country also voted on 162 state-wide ballot measures on a variety of specific policy issues such as marijuana legalization, education reform, minimum wage, death penalty, gun control and voluntary euthanasia. 7 out of 10 of these were approved by popular vote.


But what explains adoption, evolution and trends of ballot measures across U.S. states? What explains direct participation? The lack of available research that looks at these measures through an inter-state comparative lens is astounding. There are discrepancies across states not just in the volume and themes of ballot measures passed over time but also in the very definition of ballot measure and the initiative process. Some states, such as California, have submitted a total of 1225 ballot measures since they were first put to vote in 1911. Others, such as Delaware, have not instituted the ballot measures provision till date. Minnesota (71.37%), Wisconsin (69.46%) and New Hampshire (67.84%) have experienced the highest levels of voter turnout for ballot measures from 1980-2012. Hawaii (39.94%) and Texas (41.67%) report some of the lowest voter turnout in the same period. Differences in direct participation across states have been unchanged over time. The accumulated number of ballot measures submitted since the provision was adopted in each state shows exactly the same geographic distribution pattern as the accumulated number submitted in the last 20 years only (see Chart above).

What can explain these differences in direct democracy? We looked at the legal provisions that delineate these electoral processes in different states as well as tried to explain spikes and lows in ballot measure activity through the historical context of political, economic and social events that could shed some light onto our quest for the underlying forces and sources of direct democracy. We also looked into variation of demographics across states.

One of the primary reasons why these results vary across states is the manner in which the process of direct democracy is laid out. It differs across states. Ballot measures differentiate between three main types of participatory tools – Legislative Referendum, Popular Referendum and Initiative – depending on who introduces them in the legislative system. The nomenclature used to describe these three types of measures varies across states as well, which are also known as legislative referrals or bond issues:

  • Legislative referendum refers to bills in the state legislature that are approved by legislators for a referendum; i.e., public vote. The percentage of legislator votes required to put a bill up for public vote varies across states, with some states requiring a simple majority such as Arizona, Arkansas and the Dakotas, while others like Idaho, Maine and Washington stipulate a two-thirds vote. Some states also specify that the referendum requires a majority vote from legislators in multiple sessions of the legislature, in order to be placed on the ballot.
  • Initiative (direct or indirect) is a more participatory process where citizens can put an issue on the ballot through a petition. These petitions require a certain number of signatories to be passed. 18 states have presently a provision that allows citizens to even amend their state Constitution.
  • Popular referendum, often called veto-referendum, is used by voters to try to repeal a new law passed in the state legislature. Similar to the initiative process, this method also requires a certain number of signatories to put a measure on the ballot and it is used by petitioners who oppose the new law. 20 states in the U.S. currently allow for a popular veto of state bills.
  • Other forms of ballot measures exist, such as bond issues to determine additional budgetary spending, advisory questions where the outcome of ballot measures are non binding, automatic ballot referral where in some issues are mandated by the constitution to be placed on the ballot under specified circumstances, or commission-referred measures where a commission authorized by a prior act of legislation puts an issue on the ballot.

Citizen participation have undergone vast procedural amendments over time. Massachusetts, for example, has made 18 amendments to the laws governing ballot measures since 2010. Some states have experimented with changing up the means of collecting signatures by allowing and disallowing e-signatures (Utah, Nebraska and Tennessee tried to initiate this method but all three bills failed) or by changing the number of signatures required to put a measure on the ballot. Further, these measures have been under scrutiny for their campaign financing method. Critics have often voiced concerns regarding the pay-per-signature collection method and financially sponsored petitions that can allow minority lobby groups to hold political leverage. This is seen in California, Florida and Michigan where the practice of payment for every signature collected is permitted. This system is not permitted in other states like Oregon and South Dakota, while Washington repealed the ban in 1994.

Nationwide, the downward trend in measures being put on the ballot across the country is clear. Once again, the explanation for this variation is far from straightforward. Several possible factors such as changes in ballot laws that make it more or less accessible to certain communities, historical events that provoke a large public response, voter turnout as well as the issues raised by the ruling political groups are all part of the list of suspects.

The case for direct democracy is highly timely now with at least half of the country feeling poorly represented amidst November’s election. Whether this motivation is enough to foster engagement in policy-making is difficult to predict, but a better understanding of the legal measures in place at the state level to protect access to participation and a more pluralistic society, as well as the forces behind the adoption of ballot measures, can go a long way in building a less unequal nation. In a time of divisiveness, the reinvigoration of direct participation could help protect inclusive political and economic institutions at the state level.

Aishwarya Visweswaran is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs pursuing her Master's in Development Practice. Her work focuses on comparative political systems.

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