More than 25 states have initiative-and-referendum processes, where petition-circulating voters can place policy questions directly on the ballot.
Most states adopted popular initiatives during the era of Progressive reform in the early 1900s as a reaction to the dominance of party machines in major cities. Supporters said the initiative process would transfer power from political bosses to the people.
Historically a strong party state, Pennsylvania does not permit popular initiatives – only the legislature can establish referenda for voter consideration, as happened last month when restrictions on gubernatorial emergency powers were approved.
California is the most famous of the popular initiative states. Foreshadowing the Reagan presidency, Proposition 13 launched a national tax revolt in 1978 by placing strict limits on property taxes. Social conservatives in 2008 promoted Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages, a measure that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in Obergefell v Hodges (2015).
Recently, progressives have taken advantage of the initiative process, gaining voter approval of police oversight mechanisms, legalization of marijuana for recreational use, and raising the minimum wage.
These actions have not pleased Republicans, who have attempted to limit their effects. For example, Missouri voters endorsed Medicaid expansion last year, but the GOP-dominated state legislature refused to fund implementation.
Now GOP lawmakers are restricting the initiative-and-referendum process itself. According to the New York Times, Republicans have introduced 144 bills to curb initiatives in 32 states. So far, 19 were signed into law by nine Republican governors.
The restrictions include making petition drives more difficult and costly, raising the threshold of referendum passage to 65 percent, or a two-thirds majority, and limiting the amount of money individuals and groups can contribute to an initiative campaign.
Ordinarily, political scientists like myself would get behind efforts to limit or even eliminate popular initiatives. Not that we are anti-democracy, but because a wave of research has shown that direct democracy in practice falls far short of the ideal.
While supporters of ballot drives may be well-intentioned, the initiative-and-referendum process tends most times to be dominated by powerful, well-heeled interests and individuals. Campaigns for and against referenda degenerate into shouting wars and deceitful advertising.
Voter turnout for referenda is usually lower than for elective offices. Often votes are scheduled for off-year elections or, in the case of Pennsylvania last month, primaries, when turnout is at its smallest and is least representative of the citizenry.
When it comes to the voting act itself, ballot questions are phrased in legalistic, convoluted, or slanted language. Multiple issues, varying in complexity and saliency, may appear on the printed ballot, which in California can be longer than The Great Gatsby.
More often than not, the results of the initiative process are divisiveness and questionable policies. The classic example is the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. California’s Prop 13 lowered taxes, but also cut funding for public services and service quality to levels below what the public preferred.
To be sure, popular initiatives have their defenders.
Advocates of deliberative democracy note that electoral law and today’s mass media can provide the means for community conversations over ballot issues prior to the vote. When forums are moderated by expert facilitators, the quality of arguments improves and voter education is significantly enhanced.
Citizen-driven referenda promote policy innovation, enabling state governments to serve as “laboratories of democracy,” testing new ideas that, if successful, can spread regionally and nationally.
The initiative-and-referendum process can serve as a powerful check. In states where politics and government are dominated by one party or a coalition of interests, citizen petition drives provide an outlet for the unrepresented.
For Pennsylvania and other states with divided party government, popular initiatives can break gridlock. This was the Republicans’ justification for proposing constitutional limits on Governor Wolf’s use of emergency powers during the COVID pandemic.
And, there are some ideas – nonpartisan redistricting comes to mind – that politicians will never consider unless there is outside pressure.
Finally, anyone who has witnessed the spectacles of partisanship, ideology, and interest group power in Washington, D.C. and Harrisburg would find it hard to argue that elective representatives are less susceptible to pernicious influences than are voters.
These arguments have persuaded some political observers and analysts to take a second look at initiatives and referenda.
Republican efforts to restrict popular initiatives are not taking place in isolation.
Rather, they are part of a larger campaign to entrench minority rule through voter suppression tactics, gerrymandering, nullification of election results, and disruption of the peaceful transfer of power.
In the current toxic climate, the question should not be whether to restrict popular initiatives and referenda. Instead, how should such processes be adopted and perfected in Pennsylvania and elsewhere?
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.