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Revitalising American Democracy where it counts

Feb 21,2023 - Last updated at Feb 21,2023

BERKELEY — America’s representative democracy has become increasingly fragile at the federal level. With the US Supreme Court captured by a radical conservative majority, and with Congress constrained by deep political divisions, electoral gerrymandering and arbitrary procedural rules, neither body represents the interests of the majority — especially on issues such as abortion rights, minimum wages, gun control, and voting.

Fortunately, citizens can still effect change from the bottom up, through elections as well as through local initiatives and ballot measures. The past year has offered cause for optimism: In addition to the surprising results of many midterm congressional elections and state and local polls, there were also successful ballot measures concerning issues on which a majority of Americans agree.

The United States has a long history of concerned citizens pursuing direct action through the powers vested to them by the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution. And now, voters and progressive groups around the country are continuing this tradition, by tackling key issues that are being ignored or set back at the federal level.

The scope for such efforts is massive. Two-thirds of US citizens can avail themselves of direct-democracy tools like local ballot measures, owing to efforts that began in the early-twentieth-century Progressive Era. While the requirements for getting an initiative on the ballot vary substantially by state (Arizona recently made the process more difficult, and Florida is attempting to do so), the costs of doing so pale in comparison to that of a typical Senate race. The greatest expense is usually incurred by deploying paid signature gatherers. But in 2022, Michigan voters qualified a reproductive-rights measure in record time through a well-organised volunteer effort.

Moreover, in most states (excluding California), the names and contact information gathered through this process can be used to build up a supporter base for future mobilisation efforts. New technology platforms are also helping to reduce costs and expand reach. Boulder, Colorado, recently announced a process to get initiatives on the ballot through an online petition system, perhaps signaling the next phase of direct democracy in America.

Ballot measures supporting abortion rights, gun control, and higher minimum wages were clear winners in the 2022 election cycle. Most Americans (at least 60 per cent) think abortion should be legal in “all or most cases”, and this support was apparent in recent ballot outcomes, following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. In every state where people had an opportunity to vote on abortion rights — including red (Republican-leaning) states — they chose to protect them.

While anti-abortion groups put measures to restrict reproductive rights on the ballot in Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana, all of them failed. At the same time, voters in California, Vermont, and Michigan approved initiatives to enshrine abortion rights in their state constitutions. Still, of the 17 states that allow voters to initiate ballot proposals directly, ten currently have abortion restrictions or bans on the books. A mobilisation is therefore underway to put abortion rights on the 2024 ballot in these jurisdictions. In states where anti-abortion lawmakers control the levers of power, such initiatives offer the best, most immediate hope of protecting reproductive rights.

There have also been recent successes with ballot measures for economic and social justice, owing to the work of the Fairness Project. Founded in 2015 by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, the project has won 31 of 33 ballot measures (affecting 18 million people) to raise wages, stop predatory payday lenders, expand healthcare access, and secure more paid time off, among other life-changing policies. While the organisation’s early focus was on minimum-wage measures in Maine, California, and Washington, it has since repeated these successes in purple states like Michigan, and even in red states like Arizona and Missouri. All told, these measures have channeled $22 billion to some of the most vulnerable Americans — a sum much larger than all union-negotiated increases combined.

The Fairness Project has also pursued measures to expand Medicaid and paid sick leave in many states, including deep red ones like Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Oklahoma, and South Dakota — often winning ballots with over 60 per cent approval. Nearly 1 million additional residents of these states have access to health care because of its efforts. And, most recently, the Project has helped pass measures limiting predatory payday lending in Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska; instituting police reforms in Austin, Texas, Cleveland, Ohio, and Los Angeles County; and protecting abortion rights in Michigan and Vermont.

In each case, the strategy was to focus on issues that have been stuck in the legislative process despite commanding supermajority bipartisan support among voters. And all of the Fairness Project’s recent successes were achieved with an annual budget of less than $10 million.

Looking ahead, the 2024 election cycle could prove groundbreaking for the use of ballot measures to protect democracy and overcome gridlock. A large majority of Americans support the kind of progressive policies that are being obstructed by unrepresentative legislatures. Initiatives on basic economic issues, civil rights, and health and reproductive rights will all but certainly appear on the ballots in many more states.

Similarly, reforms to strengthen democratic processes — from the use of ranked-choice voting in Maine and Alaska to campaign vouchers in Oakland, California — are gaining momentum and support, and early conversations are underway about using ballot measures to address climate change, following California’s recent successes.

These discussions reflect a growing recognition that the ballot is an effective and relatively inexpensive but underused tool. Just imagine how many states could have passed meaningful reforms in 2022 if the $100 million-plus raised in the Texas gubernatorial race had been redeployed toward popular ballot measures. Now imagine that such efforts had been coordinated and well-funded across many states, including swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Florida.

Voters are rightfully frustrated with the lack of progress in Congress, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. But if history is any guide, voters will have the last word. There will be many important candidate races in 2024. But they will no longer be the sole focus. Americans have a huge opportunity to use their Tenth Amendment right to enact popular progressive measures directly.


Laura Tyson, a former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Board of Advisers at Angeleno Group. Lenny Mendonca, senior partner emeritus at McKinsey & Company, is a former chief economic and business adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom of California and chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.


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