Ballot Initiatives as Tools for Social Change

Ideas and Issues

ballotNew Orleans   Speaking as a huge believer in ballot initiatives as a difficult, but accessible, way to get around legislative gridlocks and political playmaking in order to win critical public policy changes like minimum wage increases, elimination of taxes on food and medicine, support of generic drugs, and other measures through the years, I found a recent analysis of voters disconcerting.

Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College, and a colleague, Janine Parry of the University of Arkansas, examined voter turnout data from 2014 on ballot referenda in Arkansas. He reported that a decade ago such measures pushed infrequent voters to the polls on highly controversial measures that they had studied like issues addressing same-sex marriage. Rural white voters in the state kicked the mud off their boots, jumped off the tractors, and ran to the polls to vote on that issue! What they found looking at five different measures in 2014, including one to raise the minimum wage in the state, was a horse of a different color. As Barth writes in the Arkansas Times:

“Fewer than half of the voters claimed to know that any initiatives or referendums were on the ballot just a few weeks before the election and nearly two-thirds of the group was unable –when pressed – to recall a single measure correctly. (Only 15 percent of all voters knew that the minimum wage measure, in which Democrats had invested such great hopes, would be on their ballot.) The opportunity to vote on individual ballot measures seemed also to make no impact on voters’ excitement about voting in the election.”

We’ve discussed before how the mishandling of the minimum wage measure by former Senator Mark Pryor as just a “turnout” tool, though victorious, had gutted the popular participation, cutting out unions, community organizations, and others from their normal roles in such an effort. Despite that, Barth’s points are disturbing for those of us who believe that there is hope for our progressive future through such direct democracy.

Dave Regan, a friend and comrade, serving as president of the 100,000 plus member healthcare local in California, United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) for example has argued in a proposal to revitalize the labor movement called “Live Better Together” that unions and progressive allies should maximize the opportunities to win public policy changes through initiated act procedures in the twenty-four states that allow access to the ballot to citizens. Where polling indicates 70% or better support but is stymied in legislative bodies, he advocates aggressive –and expensive – investments in ballot measures to win such changes also creates leverage to revitalize the labor movement.

Having been to that well often over the years through our labor and community efforts, his argument is intriguing, even if perhaps overstated, but Barth and his colleagues analysis is sobering because it reminds us as organizers and progressives not to overestimate the depth of support for the changes we make when our base is inadequately engaged and mobilized and our support, rather than enthusiastic and deep-seated, may be thin and superficial, and therefore equally able to be moved against us as for us. There’s still no substitute or shortcuts for organizing.