A Taste of Direct Democracy: Let the People Decide!

Dianne Feeley

January 11, 2023

Having ballot initiatives is, in my opinion, the most democratic aspect of U.S. politics. Every registered voter has the right to vote on an issue — not just vote to elect a representative. This is particularly meaningful when citizens initiate the proposal and circulate petitions to place it on the ballot.

These methods of passing laws or amending state constitutions are a gain from the Progressive era. But only 17 states have adopted citizen-led initiatives. Although many more are initiated by state legislatures, the options of initiative, referendum and recall do not exist at the national level. (Interestingly enough, Leon Trotsky supported the Ludlow Amendment, which would have required a national referendum on any declaration of war by Congress.)

To be sure, these mechanisms are not easy to use even in the states where they exist. The number of signatures from registered voters that need to be gathered within a specified time frame and the money required to carry such a process through the entire election cycle require a significant mobilization of resources.

In Michigan for example, to achieve ballot status for a proposed law the campaign must collect signatures from five percent of the number who voted in the previous gubernatorial election (for the 2022 election that meant 212,530 valid signatures). For an amendment to the state constitution, it must meet an eight percent threshold (425,059 signatures in 2022).

An attempt by the gerrymandered Michigan legislature to impose requirements regarding the signatures’ geographical diversity was blocked as unconstitutional. Nonetheless, meeting the existing requirement is an enormous task.

Given the consolidation of the far-right majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the likelihood of persistent gridlock in Congress, it seems that the struggle over voting rights, public health care and reproductive justice will be at the state level. However unjust it is that someone living in one state has less access to legal rights than a citizen living in another state, that’s the reality that we face.

Over the past five years Michigan voters have been able to expand our democratic rights through three successful referenda that expanded constitutional rights:

  • In 2018, voters passed a proposal to set up an independent commission to draw up state and congressional districts. The first election after the commission took office seems to have created more competitive districts.
  • In 2022, we won Proposal 2 to increase voting rights by having nine voting days before the official election day, provide absentee ballots without requiring a reason and mandating dropoff boxes.
  • In 2022, Proposal 3 added “reproductive freedom” to the list of guaranteed rights. This not only voids a 1931 anti-abortion law that criminalized doctors and pharmacists who aided in abortion but opened up a discussion about what we need to do in order to fully implement those words.

Because the state legislature has a window in which they can coopt and “amend” a law that citizen signatures have put on the ballot — a sleazy trick which Republicans used to gut a 2018 ballot initiative for raising the minimum wage — the 2018 and 2022 ballot initiatives were designed to amend the state constitution and therefore avoid being watered down.

We learned this lesson from previous experience:

  • In 2012 Michiganders voted down the hated Emergency Manager law that allowed the state to take over cities and public school boards as well as void union contracts. Every single county in the state — all 83 — voted it down. Yet the legislature added the same takeover mechanism to a budget measure , thereby exempting it from citizen action.
  • The 2018 referendum was to raise the minimum wage to $12, but then the legislature preemptively reduced the raise and extended the date — to 2030! A court ruling has eventually voided the amendment but the $12 minimum only became effective on January 1, 2023.

Multiple Victories

In November there were three other states with referenda to add reproductive rights issues to their constitutions. The legislatures in California and Vermont put the issue on the ballot. In California, the wording was limited to contraception and abortion, while Vermont added a reproductive rights agenda. Both passed, as did Michigan’s.

In Kentucky voters rejected the call to deny constitutional protections for abortion. Montana’s proposed law required medical workers to provide care to infants born prematurely or in rare instances of surviving an abortion. This was a rightwing attempt to take the focus off the pregnant person, and it too was rejected.

The first post-Roe referendum was last summer. Kansas voters rejected a proposed amendment to their state constitution that there was no right to abortion. Therefore in all six states where abortion rights were on the ballot, the right to bodily autonomy won.

Referenda on expanding voting rights were also successful. As the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting rights issues, points out, voters generally support greater access to elections. In the six states where voting processes were on the November ballot, Michigan and Connecticut increased access, Arizona blocked stricter ID laws and the other three maintained the status quo.

This does not mean that reproductive and voting rights are settled issues. Rather, the right wing understands that it is difficult to implement their perspectives through referenda. They will continue to do so via state legislatures — as they have been doing.

Socialist Viewpoints

I have been surprised at the number of socialists and socialist groups that don’t see referenda as an important tool. It’s an opportunity to work in a broad coalition and to discuss with a large milieu of activists and voters about specific social issues.

Some socialists find the work in gathering signatures too daunting, while others view the referendum as just a ploy to turn out voters who will support the Democratic Party. Some have even said it is “wrong to vote on people’s rights” which they should have automatically. These also tend to be the same folks as those who are afraid “we can’t win” the vote and that our work will end up setting the movement back.

Frankly I found these approaches appalling! I don’t see working on a ballot initiative as separate from the social movement that generates the proposal. The referendum provides a limited time frame for the campaign, but it helps to organize and concentrate the work. It asks people to take a stand. It involves meetings, demonstrations, disrupting the legislature during a session, leafleting, talking about the proposal in small groups and in one’s network.

Other socialists saw the proposal to add reproductive freedom to the constitution as fluff, relatively meaningless and reformist. I, on the other hand, see this demand as revolutionary in its implications. We can’t really develop pre- and post-natal care if we don’t have free public health care, and we can’t have healthy children if we don’t have paid parental leaves and quality child care, low-cost housing, and affordability utilities.

That necessity in turn opens up discussions about structural inequality, and even about the work day — how long it must be, how safe it must be, how necessary it is for society, and so on.

It’s true that we “risked” losing the vote. But we asserted that citizens had the right to overturn a 1931 law that criminalized those who aided women needing abortions. We didn’t ask the legislature, which failed (under both parties) to repeal the law during the 49 years that Roe v. Wade was the standard.

When we started collecting signatures, most people didn’t even realize that there was an anti-abortion law on the Michigan books. Most didn’t realize our rich country has the highest rate of infant and maternal mortality in the industrialized world.

Referenda offer a powerful opportunity to put people in charge of our destiny. Let’s be sure to use it where and when we can!

This article is based on a presentation that the author made to the December 11 Zoom meeting of Solidarity members and friends.

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