“Crackdown on democracy”: Republican lawmakers across the country are trying to overrule voters

Republicans are trying to reverse or undermine voter-approved measures on Medicaid, marijuana, schools and more

By Igor Derysh
Published May 7, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid growing concerns that Republicans will try to use new voting laws to overturn elections in the wake of a campaign of lies stoking unfounded fears about vote-rigging, GOP-led state legislatures across the country are already trying to reverse popular ballot initiatives approved by majorities of voters.

Missouri voters last year passed a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid. Arizona approved a new tax on the wealthy to fund schools. South Dakota legalized marijuana. But Republicans are trying to block those measures from being implemented and dozens of state legislatures are pushing new bills to make it harder to get voter initiatives on the ballot in the first place.

"As more progressive issues are winning at the ballot, from Medicaid expansion to legalization and decriminalization of marijuana to raising the minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, increasing access to the voting process, we have seen concerted efforts by state legislators to undermine the will of the people," Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), said in an interview with Salon.

BISC is tracking 125 bills to change the ballot measure process in 28 states, including measures that would increase the thresholds to get initiatives on the ballot or approved. Other proposals would require ballot initiatives to pass multiple times, increase filing fees and change the signature requirements. Republican lawmakers have also introduced more than 300 bills to restrict voting, dozens of anti-protest bills, and numerous measures that would undermine or snatch power from state courts and local election boards.

The effort to reverse voter-led ballot measures is "deeply connected to what we're seeing across the country after yet another election where people of color and young people turn out in record numbers demanding a different future," Figueredo said. "We see all of this as a concerted effort to limit and reduce people-led and people-initiated power."

Missouri voters last year approved a state constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid to more than 200,000 low-income residents, with 53% supporting the proposal in a state Donald Trump won easily. Republican lawmakers opposed the measure, arguing that it would be too expensive even though the federal government would cover 90% of the costs and research found that it would save the state an estimated $39 million per year. Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who opposed the amendment, said he would respect the vote and introduced a budget funding the expansion. But last week, the Republican-led state legislature rejected Parson's additional $130 million in spending and voted not to fund the expansion.

Parson may still decide to allow newly eligible residents to enroll in the program and risk running out of funding. But "if he chooses not to do that then the fight will go to the courts," Missouri House Democratic leader Crystal Quade said in an interview with Salon.

"We are extremely frustrated by this but frankly not surprised," Quade continued. "In Missouri, the initiative petition process has been used to pass a lot of things that the legislature is not doing, or is trying to do that the voters disagree with. We've seen time and time again the Republican majority here undo the will of the voters and continue to just not listen to them."

Republican legislators are also trying to make it more difficult to get these initiatives on the ballot after voters approved the Medicaid expansion as well as other initiatives to legalize medical marijuana, overturn the state's right-to-work law and implement redistricting reforms (which were also later overturned with backing from Republicans). Supporters already need to collect signatures from at least 8% of voters in six of the state's eight congressional districts. Republicans have introduced a bill that would raise the signature requirement to 10% to 15% of voters in all districts and raise the vote threshold to pass an initiative to 60% or 66%. Other bills would require the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment before it becomes a ballot measure and raise the filing fee for initiative petitions.

"The issue with initiative petitions all over the country — it's outside influences, outside of Missouri, that are coming in and influencing state policy," state Rep. John Simmons, a Republican who backs one of the measures, told the Associated Press, arguing that outside groups misled voters about the cost of the program.

But Quade said legislation to change the ballot initiative process will only require campaigns in the state to spend even more money.

"Then we will only see more money having to come in to do these measures, and so that argument does not make sense to me," she said. "In terms of them thinking that it's too easy, my response to that is that it shouldn't be difficult for regular citizens to hold their legislature accountable when we're not doing what they want us to be doing. We do not believe that it is too easy. Every year there are hundreds of initiative petitions that are filed. Only a handful make it to the ballot, sometimes none at all. There's no data to back up that argument."

Simmons argued that outside influences are trying to subvert the power of the legislature.

"To me, it's an end-around from the federalist system that we have, it's an end-around to the checks and balances system," he told the AP. "It's us, the legislature, that needs to decide and do these things. And if not, then we get voted out."

But in the era of hyper-partisan redistricting, it's not that simple. Because Missouri's legislative districts are already heavily gerrymandered, Quade said, "the legislature doesn't reflect the same values that citizens are wanting to get done."

In fact, Quade argued, "We're going to potentially become more gerrymandered as a state" after the redistricting initiative was repealed. "So by changing the initiative petition process, this is taking away one of the things that voters have when the legislature isn't doing what they want. … It's a slap in the face to voters."

Missouri is hardly alone in trying to reverse popular votes. In South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Kristi Noem argued that voters made the "wrong choice" last year by voting to legalize marijuana and directed law enforcement officials to file a lawsuit blocking the measure, Medicaid expansion supporters have run into their own roadblocks just trying to get an initiative on the ballot.

South Dakota, which was the first state in the country to adopt the initiative process more than a century ago, passed a resolution by a single vote in March to put an initiative on the primary ballot that would require a 60% threshold to pass any initiative that will cost more than $10 million. Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the Republican Senate president pro tem who introduced the resolution, admitted to local news outlet Argus Leader that the measure was directly aimed at heading off the Medicaid expansion initiative backed by the grassroots group Dakotans for Health.

"It's obviously by design because you've got fewer people participating in the primary and in our state there's not a lot of Democrats to begin with and there aren't a lot of Democratic primaries," Adam Weiland, co-founder of Dakotans for Health, said in an interview with Salon, adding that the group has filed a lawsuit to move the initiative to the November general election ballot.

Weiland said the push in South Dakota and other states to undermine "vehicles by which ordinary people participate in the political process" was tantamount to a "crackdown on democracy."

He continued, "The bad actors here are obviously Republican governors and Republican legislatures around the country, but it's also organizations like the Koch network and ALEC, who are the brainchild and financial backers of a lot of what's going on here to push this sort of broader national campaign. 

"They can't win at the ballot box so they're going to try to figure out ways to win on technicalities, by cheating, by trying to prevent things from getting to the ballot box. That's where they're at, because I think they probably realized that the people aren't with them on it."

Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little signed a law last month requiring supporters to collect signatures from at least 6% of voters in each of the state's 35 state legislative districts, arguing that ballots have become "cluttered with initiatives that have not demonstrated sufficient grassroots support" after voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Medicaid expansion.

"The Idaho Legislature is attempting to ensure that no citizen initiative like Medicaid expansion ever appears on the ballot again," Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, which campaigned for the Medicaid initiative, said in a statement to Salon. "That they would go to such lengths seems strange on the surface, considering that the legislature already has the right to repeal any initiative that voters enact. But the truth is that Idaho's GOP establishment wants to prevent voters from even expressing their will on issues like health care, education, and wages. Every expression of popular will on these issues reveals how out of touch elected officials are with those they claim to represent. In Idaho and many other states, initiatives like Medicaid expansion undermine the legitimacy of the political establishment."

In Arizona, where repeated Republican budget cuts prompted a statewide teacher strike in 2018, voters last year approved a ballot measure to boost underfunded schools by imposing a new 3.5% tax on individuals earning over $250,000 and couples making $500,000 to raise more than $900 million in estimated annual revenues. But Republicans have introduced Senate Bill 1783, which would exempt business earnings from the new tax, and GOP lawmakers filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the entire measure, arguing that it is unconstitutional because it violates legal limits on increases to school district funding that can only be overridden by the legislature.

Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, said Republicans were trying to undo "years of organizing efforts" prompted by "decades of neglect and underfunding from the state."

"Despite the need for school funding and the support of voters, those in power are still trying to stop these funds through lawsuits and legislation like Senate Bill 1783, which is a direct attack on the Invest in Education Act," Thomas said in a statement to Salon. "This bill creates a tax evasion scheme to divert up to $378 million of #INVESTinED dollars away from our schools and back into the pockets of the greedy 1%. These efforts by GOP leadership will not stop us from providing our students with the public schools they deserve. We will continue to fight because we know our students are worth the effort."

In Florida, where Republican lawmakers took a sledgehammer to a voter-backed initiative to restore voting rights to more than 1 million former felons, voters last year overwhelmingly voted to pass a ballot measure to increase the state's minimum wage to $15 by 2026, even though Trump won the state and Republicans did well in other races. Now a new Republican measure aimed to undermine the vote seeks to put another amendment on the ballot that would reduce the minimum wage increase for workers under 21, those convicted of felonies and "other hard-to-hire employees."

Florida has also spent years making it harder to pass initiatives. Last year, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill raising the signature threshold for a petition to be reviewed by the state Supreme Court from 10% of registered voters to 25%, and previously signed a bill imposing restrictions on petition gatherers. This year, Republicans are pushing measures to limit contributions to groups promoting ballot initiatives and to raise the threshold to pass an amendment from 60% to 66%.

DeSantis has argued that additional restrictions are needed because he believes too many policies have been approved by voters in recent years without input from the state legislature. But Figueredo noted that Florida already has a 60% threshold to pass any amendment, which "is more than DeSantis and many people who are currently state legislators or in seats of government" received in their elections. That's clearly true: DeSantis received 49.5% of the vote in his 2018 election, eking out a win by about 40,000 votes.

Florida is one of dozens of states trying to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives, along with Republican-led states like Oklahoma, North Dakota, Arkansas and Utah. Figueredo argued that the effort is an extension of Republican backlash since the election of former President Barack Obama, when red states introduced a slew of voting restrictions and moved to consolidate power through redistricting.

Partisan redistricting, which is expected to get worse this year due to single-party GOP control in many states and court decisions that have undermined previous redistricting limits, has created disproportionately Republican legislatures that are often at odds with large swaths of voters in their states.

"There is a long history of elected officials resisting or sometimes subverting the implementation of laws that voters pass through the initiative," Craig Burnett, a political science professor and direct democracy expert at Hofstra University, told Salon. "In recent years, we have seen several high-profile liberal initiatives come under attack. This occurs because, in part, the initiative process is adversarial to the legislature.

"That is, initiatives produce outcomes that the median voter prefers, while legislatures are often not reflective of the median voter because the individual districts that produce legislators often result in aggregate outcomes that are either too liberal or too conservative. As a result, whenever you have a legislature that does not mirror the preferences of the median voter — in this case, the legislatures are too conservative — you would expect them to be more likely to undermine an initiative."

Figueredo said citizen-led initiatives should not be seen as "adversarial" to the power of state lawmakers. "It is another form of our democracy in action," she said, and an "opportunity for state legislators to even more deeply engage with their constituents."

She, too, blamed redistricting for contributing to growing tensions between Republican lawmakers and the voters they theoretically represent.

"They're supposed to be our voice in government, and it is unfortunate that power has been consolidated at the state level to one particular party," she said. "What we see with so many of these initiatives is they're much more values-aligned with what people want, what people are demanding for their communities. … It's really about listening to the will of the people. Any person in government should be responding to the needs of the people, not a political party."


Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a staff writer at Salon. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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