Aiming to derail a citizen initiative to protect abortion rights, Republicans in the Ohio legislature in 2023 tried to make it harder for citizens to amend the state constitution. Their methods were cynical but familiar. For years, some state lawmakers and officials have been trying to undermine avenues of direct democracy.
Nearly half of all states include a right to direct democracy in their constitution. That is, they allow citizens to place statutory or constitutional proposals on the ballot and pass them by popular vote. footnote1_9g1rkbt 1 The Mississippi Constitution allows ballot initiatives that propose an amendment to the state’s constitution, but the Mississippi Supreme Court has effectively voided this provision by finding it incompatible with other provisions of law. This right, instituted in most places during the Progressive Era, modifies the typical “representative democracy” system by which people exercise their will by electing representatives to pass laws. Of the states that allow direct democracy, 16 permit citizens to directly initiate constitutional amendments.
To be sure, there are legitimate debates about how to ensure the ballot initiative process is regulated in a way that balances the goals of facilitating majoritarian democracy and ensuring adequate deliberation and stability in the law. But ballot initiatives enable citizens to overcome structural impediments to true representative democracy — for example, by translating voters’ preferences into policy when gerrymandered legislative districts otherwise stymie the popular will. In recent years, lawmakers have been changing the procedural rules to make it harder for citizens to exercise this power. And they appear to be doing so, not because of valid concerns that the process is insufficiently regulated, but rather because they do not like the policies citizens are enacting or are posed to enact.
Arizona and North Dakota stand out as the worst offenders. In Arizona, where there have been heated battles over initiatives on abortion and minimum wage, lawmakers approved two resolutions to make it harder for citizen-initiated measures to get on the ballot and also supported an unsuccessful challenge to a citizen-initiated law in court. Meanwhile, in an apparent backlash to a successful ballot initiative imposing term limits, North Dakota lawmakers voted to increase the number of signatures needed to place a measure on the ballot, and to require citizen-initiated measures to pass in two successive elections. Executive officials in North Dakota, for their part, attempted to disqualify valid petition signatures for the term-limits initiative but were blocked by the state’s highest court.
State officials’ efforts to thwart citizen initiatives do not take shape in isolation. They are part of a larger antidemocracy blueprint — yet another example of state officials trying to manipulate the rules of elections and obstruct the will of voters.
In the past five years, several trends have emerged among the more brazen efforts that warrant attention from voting rights and democracy advocates.