JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions this year backing proposed ballot initiatives to expand voting access, ensure abortion rights and legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona, Arkansas and Michigan.
Yet voters might not get a say because Republican officials or judges have blocked the proposals from the November elections, citing flawed wording, procedural shortcomings or insufficient petition signatures.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and Arizona have placed constitutional amendments on the ballot proposing to make it harder to approve citizen initiatives in the future.
The Republican pushback against the initiative process is part of a several-year trend that gained steam as Democratic-aligned groups have increasingly used petitions to force public votes on issues that Republican-led legislatures have opposed. In reliably Republican Missouri, for example, voters have approved initiatives to expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana. An initiative seeking to allow recreational pot is facing a court challenge from an anti-drug activist aiming to knock it off the November ballot.
Some Democrats contend Republicans are subverting the will of the people by making the ballot initiative process more difficult.
“What is happening now is just a web of technicalities to thwart the process in states where voters are using the people’s tool to make an immediate positive change in their lives,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which has worked with progressive groups sponsoring the blocked initiatives.
“That is not the way our democracy should work,” she added.
Republicans who have thrown up hurdles to initiative petitions contend they are protecting the integrity of the lawmaking process against well-funded interest groups trying to bend state policies in their favor.
“I think the Legislature is a much purer way to get things done and it represents the people much better, rather than having this jungle where you just throw it on the ballot,” said South Dakota state Rep. Tim Goodwin, who has perennially targeted the initiative process with restrictions.
About half the states allow citizen initiatives, in which petition signers can bypass a legislature to place proposed laws or constitutional changes directly before voters. But executive or judicial officials often still have some role in the process, typically by certifying that the ballot wording is clear and accurate and that petition circulators gathered enough valid signatures of registered voters.
In Michigan this past week, two Republican members of the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers blocked initiatives to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and expand opportunities for voting. Each measure had significantly more than the required 425,000 signatures. But GOP board members said the voting measure had unclear wording and the abortion measure was flawed because of spacing problems that scrunched some words together.
Supporters have appealed both decisions to the Michigan Supreme Court, which consists of a majority of Democratic-appointed judges.
The Arkansas Supreme Court, whose justices run in nonpartisan elections, is weighing an appeal of an August decision blocking an initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana for adults.
The State Board of Election Commissioners, which has just one Democrat among its many Republicans, determined that the ballot title was misleading because it failed to mention it would repeal potency limits in an existing medical marijuana provision. Because the deadline has passed to certify initiative titles, the Supreme Court has allowed the measure on the general election ballot while it decides whether the votes will be counted.
A lawsuit by initiative supporters contends a 2019 law passed by the Republican-led Legislature violates the Arkansas Constitution by allowing the board to reject ballot titles.
“The (initiative) process in Arkansas has gotten consistently harder each cycle, as the Legislature adds more and more requirements,” said Steve Lancaster, a lawyer for Responsible Growth Arkansas, which is sponsoring the marijuana amendment.
It would get even harder if voters support a legislatively referred amendment on the November ballot that would require a 60 percent vote to approve citizen-initiated ballot measures or future constitutional amendments.
In Arizona, the primarily Republican-appointed Supreme Court recently blocked a proposed constitutional amendment that would have extended early voting and limited lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The measure also would have specifically prohibited the Legislature from overturning the results of presidential elections, which some Republicans had explored after then- President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.
After a lower court initially ruled the measure could appear on the November ballot, Arizona’s high court instructed the judge to reconsider. Then it upheld a subsequent ruling throwing out enough petition signatures to prevent the initiative from qualifying for the ballot.
Still on the ballot are several other amendments referred by Arizona’s Republican-led Legislature. Those measures would limit initiatives to a single subject, require a 60 percent supermajority to approve tax proposals and expand the Legislature’s authority to change voter-approved initiatives.
Those proposals come after Arizona Republicans have spent the past decade enacting laws making it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. State laws now require petition sheets to be precisely printed and ban the use of a copy machine to create new ones. Other laws require paid circulators to include their registration number on each petition sheet, get it notarized and check a box saying they were paid.
“The effect is to make it much harder, much more expensive to get the signatures to put one of these propositions on the ballot,” said Terry Goddard, a Democrat who served as the state’s attorney general from 2003 through 2011.
After years of trying, Goddard finally succeeded this year in getting an initiative on the ballot that would require nonprofit groups that spend large amounts on elections to reveal their donors.
Earlier this summer, South Dakota voters defeated a measure that would have made it harder to pass initiatives on taxes and spending. The proposal from the Republican-led Legislature would have required a 60 percent vote to raise taxes or spend over a certain amount of money.
Voters rejected the measure by 67 percent.
“This just seems like a way to suppress voters. honestly,” Joshua Matzner, a Democrat, said after voting against it.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.