Republicans seek to restrict ballot measures after series of progressive victories

The Republican push to regulate ballot measures has intensified in recent years as citizens’ initiatives have been used to legalize marijuana, expand Medicaid, create independent redistricting commissions and raise the minimum wage in purple and red states.

But the tactic is facing new scrutiny after Kansas’ anti-abortion referendum fell into deep red, giving abortion rights supporters across the country hope that Ballot measures may be a viable way to bypass GOP-controlled legislatures and restore access. to the procedure.

Some progressives fear losing one of their last tools to defend or advance abortion rights in a post-deer country.

“Red states know that’s the only lever reproductive rights advocates still have in many of these states – where we’ve lost both houses of the legislature, we’ve lost gubernatorial seats, and we no longer have a lot of hope in the justice system,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of advocacy group The Fairness Project. “The ballot measures remain the only real muscle the people have yet to flex.”

Conservative groups in North Dakota are expected to try again next year to impose a supermajority voting threshold for ballot initiatives after their attempts to collect signatures to put such a measure on the November ballot failed more early this summer. Republican lawmakers in South Dakota are also expected to take another twist to make it harder to approve ballot initiatives after voters rejected a 60% vote requirement in the state’s June primary.

In Florida, a state where proposed constitutional amendments already need 60% approval, lawmakers recently imposed campaign fundraising limits, though the policy was blocked by a judge this summer. In Nebraska, lawmakers this year banned the collection of signatures near ballot boxes as part of an omnibus election bill.

Lawmakers in Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah are also expected to renew their push soon for other restrictions, such as raising the voting or signing threshold, requiring signatures from a certain number of counties across the state, limiting the topics that citizen-initiated ballot measures can address. , or dictate the font size canvassers should use.

“The Constitution is supposed to be a framework, and then you have laws that work within that framework. But, more and more, our Constitution is becoming a book of laws unto itself,” said Missouri State Rep. Bishop Davidson, who supports the limits of the ballot measurement process.

Davidson added that the threat of a ballot measure in favor of abortion rights – which activists are discussing after their victory in neighboring Kansas – could persuade more of his fellow Republicans to support reforms to the petition process. initiative at the next session.

“I would be shocked if there wasn’t a petition circulated from the pro-choice side of this debate,” he said. “I think it’s coming. I’m concerned.”

Proponents argue that these changes, which more states are expected to debate when legislatures resume in January, are aimed at keeping out-of-state money from flowing into their states and influencing voters to change laws or to amend their constitution.

“I know there are a lot of paid petitioners. Is it really people who want these things, or is it just groups who pay for these things? said Oklahoma State Rep. Carl Newton, a Republican.

The model extends beyond state legislatures into other parts of government.

In Michigan, Republicans on the state board voted to block certification of a sweeping ballot initiative on abortion rights that got far more than the required number of valid signatures on claims that the text of the proposed constitutional amendment had spacing and formatting errors. The State Supreme Court reversed its decision Thursday, which means voters will have the chance in November to decide whether abortion remains legal.

And last year in Mississippi, a conservative-leaning court struck down the state’s entire ballot initiative process.

“This new tool in our box to protect reproductive rights and freedoms is going to further incite our opposition to take that away from us and make it harder to pass ballot measures,” said Corrine Rivera Fowler, Director of policy and legal advocacy. at the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Of the two dozen states that allow citizen-initiated voting measures, 11 have laws banning most abortions, though some are temporarily stalled in court.

Efforts to thwart ballot initiatives, however, have not been specifically targeted at abortion.

Arkansas lawmakers, for example, acted after liberal groups turned to voters to raise the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana. But these policies may have their biggest impact on abortion rights, as lawmakers across the country debate not just whether and when the procedure should be legal, but also what penalties to impose on doctors and patients.

Arkansas Right to Life did not take a position on the proposed supermajority voting requirement. But the group’s executive director, Rose Mimms, told POLITICO that its passage would help thwart efforts to amend the state Constitution to codify an abortion right.

Lawmakers pushing for a higher threshold, she said, are “very good pro-lifers, so I think they not only had [abortion] but other Conservative issues in mind when they wanted to prevent our Constitution from being changed so easily by making this supermajority a requirement.

“We’ve seen it here in Arkansas with marijuana, that once you start amending the Constitution, it doesn’t make sense anymore,” she added.

Opponents of the 60% requirement argue that it would be much harder to pass progressive policies, including abortion protections, in a state where Republicans in the Legislature outnumber Democrats. 3 against 1.

“It’s the only tool we have in a state like Arkansas,” said Kymara Seals, policy director for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, one of the groups campaigning against the amendment. “That’s why we have to fight to protect our access to the ballot because we’re not going to get it in the legislature.”

Groups opposing the restrictions also argue that the process is already time consuming and expensive. In Michigan, for example, tens of thousands of canvassers – mostly volunteers with paid staff – worked for months to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to win the abortion rights amendment in the November ballot and planning for the effort began years ago earlier.

SBA Pro-Life America and Students for Life, two national anti-abortion groups that have spent millions on ballot initiatives in Kansas and other states, told POLITICO they do not get involved in debates on the voting process.

“Too many state and national leaders aren’t responding to what voters really want, so the rise in ballot initiatives as a trend comes from people taking advantage of the course that’s open to them,” said Kristi Hamrick, spokesperson for Students for Life. “I hope it’s not about silencing voters.”

Polls show that deerdisappearance helped Democrats close the enthusiasm gap and Democratic candidates benefited from an increase in donations since POLITICO released the Supreme Court’s draft opinion in May, but progressive groups worry that insufficient attention is being given to the ballot initiative process.

“We’re really ringing the alarm bells about what’s happening in November,” Hall said. “Because if they succeed in one of these [states]it will be all the more fuel to the fire to say that they should propose these restrictions everywhere else.

The equity bill was behind a successful Medicaid expansion ballot measure in Oklahoma in 2020, after which lawmakers introduced several bills to make it harder to pass Medicaid initiatives. citizen-led votes, including a proposal to raise the approval threshold for constitutional amendments to 55%.

The legislation failed this year, but Newton said he plans to bring his bill back in the 2024 legislative session.

Newton added that while he’s not specifically concerned about an out-of-state group introducing a pro-abortion rights ballot measure in Oklahoma, “there is a possibility because there is groups [like] Planned Parenthood… who wants that to be a reality. So they can choose us as their target state.

Meanwhile, abortion rights groups in Oklahoma are considering lifting the state’s near-total ban by asking voters directly. That’s why protecting access to the ballot is so crucial, said Laura Bellis, executive director of Take Control Oklahoma, which advocates for access to reproductive health care.

“We need to protect ballot initiatives in general before we even think about having one to protect abortion rights,” she said.

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