Last August, Kansas voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly rejected a bill restricting abortion rights. It was the biggest primary turnout in the state's history and turned popular red state notions on their head. Abortion restrictions were also rejected by voters in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Recreational marijuana was legalized in Missouri, Medicaid was expanded by voter initiative in South Dakota, all to the consternation of the GOP machines in those states. Abortion rights votes tallied a six to zero win loss rate in the recent midterm elections.
Only 17 states allow citizens, not just lawmakers, to initiate ballot proposals to amend the state constitution. Among those, abortion rights supporters in at least 10 states with abortion bans or tight restrictions — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota — are already discussing strategies and tactics for putting abortion initiatives on the 2024 presidential election ballot.
In seventeen states in our country, citizens have the power to enact laws by referendum and ballot initiatives, bypassing legislatures. There can be no more direct form of democracy than this, at least in my opinion.
But it is vexing conservative lawmakers and they are trying to put an end or make it harder for citizens to have their voices heard. In at least a dozen states, legislation is on the books to restrict or curtail ballot initiatives. One of the ways they are trying to modify the practice is by requiring 60% instead of a mere majority to enact legislation.
At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of bills to tweak the initiative process, from 33 in 2017 to more than a 100 in 2021 and 2022, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a group which provides research and support to groups promoting ballot measures.
While not all would restrict the process, many propose new requirements for the number of signatures needed, where the signatures must come from, or increase the threshold to pass a measure.
Some are simply cumbersome, like "requiring the language to be printed all on one sheet of paper, meaning you have to carry around a bath towel-size petition," Hall says. While not impossible to follow, these new rules add up to "death by a thousand cuts" for future initiatives, she says.
They fear democracy and they fear the power of the people.
Just weeks after the November election, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, and Republican Rep. Brian Stewart rolled out a resolution that would require all future constitutional amendments to receive a 60% supermajority at the polls, rather than the current 50%.
"This is about trying to make the Ohio constitution less susceptible to special interests," LaRose said.
This comes as advocates for abortion rights, legal marijuana use and redistricting reform are all gearing up to put their issue on the ballot in Ohio in 2023 or 2024.
Since 2018 voters in Missouri approved ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage from $7.85 to $12 over five years, expand Medicaid, and legalize marijuana. In 2022, Missouri lawmakers responded by introducing more bills to restrict constitutional amendments than any other state.
"I think the recent passage of recreational marijuana, which you know I oppose, maybe indicates it's a little too easy to get things through initiative petition," says Missouri's new Republican state Senate majority leader, Cindy O'Laughlin.
How are a majority of voters suddenly partisan and special interests?
In the coming election cycles, reproductive rights groups say they are looking into initiatives in at least 10 states where abortion is currently banned or heavily restricted.
In 2022, voters affirmed the right to an abortion or rejected restrictions to it in every state where it was on the ballot. That included states such as Kentucky and Kansas where Republicans control the legislature.
"While an issue may be couched as partisan, when we actually put them before voters, they transcend those party lines," says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
I was reading an article last week about a pro life strategy session that was leaked, I believe in Florida. They are terrified of the popular vote and plan to do everything they can to keep ballot initiatives on the abortion issue from appearing before the voters. With their recent win rate and the public backlash to Dobbs, it is quite understandable.