A report on three ballot measures challenging the citizen initiative amendment process in the 2020 US election.
The tradition of direct democracy in the United States of America is over 120 years old, and begins with South Dakota implementing citizens’ initiatives and referendums in its state constitution in 1898. Since then, direct democracy by way of referendums, the citizens’ initiatives, and recall votes was introduced in 32 additional US states. Now, people have the opportunity to vote on a broad variety of issues ranging from hot topics in society such as term limits for politicians or legalization of marijuana, to the less exciting topics like taxes.
The procedure of direct democracy itself in the US is a two-stage process. First, initiators need to collect enough signatures within a specified timeframe to be put on the ballot. In a second step, citizens vote in an election in favor or against the proposal. What’s more, in 18 states, the state constitutions themselves can be changed directly via a ballot measure. The citizens’ direct democratic power is indispensable because it ensures a control function over the government.
On November 3rd 2020, voters in three states also decided on ballot measures that intended to make the process of citizen initiatives and referendums more difficult - these were in Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota. All three were rejected by the citizens, which is good news for democracy. Here’s what voters decided:
In North Dakota, a citizens-initiated constitutional amendment goes into effect once it is approved by voters at the statewide election. The North Dakota Constitutional Measure 2 would have required citizen-initiated constitutional amendments passed by voters to be submitted to the state parliament for approval at the next legislative session. If the state parliament would reject the amendment already approved by voters the amendment would be put to voters a second time at the next statewide election. Meaning that a measure would have to be approved by voters two times before going into effect. The question was put on the ballot by the state legislature. In the North Dakotan Republican trifecta, three Republican Senators as well as three Republican Representatives sponsored and supported the amendment. However, citizens clearly rejected the amendment by 61.61%.
In Florida, a similar amendment appeared on the ballot. Since 2006, constitutional amendments in Florida require a 60% supermajority vote to go into effect. Florida Amendment 4 would have required all constitutional amendments to be approved twice in two successive general elections with a 60% supermajority vote each time. Similar to the proposal in North Dakota, a constitutional amendment would have to be passed twice for it to become effective, but with the extra hurdle of reaching at least a 60% supermajority both times.
Different than in North-Dakota, Florida Amendment 4 was put on the ballot by a citizens' initiative. The campaign was led by Keep our Constitution Clean PC who brought the amendment on the ballot. However only 47.54% of voters voted yes and the amendment was rejected.
In the state of Arkansas, Issue 3 was proposed by the state's legislature. With the amendment, the Arkansan legislature wanted to change requirements for citizens’ initiatives and legislative referrals by making the process for the submission and approval of proposed measures more difficult. Initiatives would have to submit the required signatures by an earlier deadline (9.5 months before the election instead of 4 months before the election) and would have no longer had the opportunity to collect signatures for another 30 days, in case they fell short of the required minimum of signatures. They also proposed to raise the 50%+1 simple majority vote to refer constitutional amendments to voters to a three-fifths (60%) vote. Another new obstacle for an amendment to get put on the ballot would have been that half of the signatures would have to be collected from at least 45 counties, instead of 15 under current rules. Those restrictions would have made getting on the ballot much more difficult, but the citizens of Arkansas rejected the amendment with 55.92% voting no.
When examining the arguments in favor of the amendments it is noticeable that they are repeated across states. One of the main arguments is that the constitution is being changed too often. Jason Zimmerman, a lawyer for Keep Our Constitution Clean PC stated "[In Florida], there have been more than 140 constitutional amendments [since the 1960s]. The United States Constitution, which has been around since the 1700s, has been amended 27 times". The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce argues, "We now have 100 amendments to the Arkansas Constitution. It has been amended 20 times since 1980". Another recurring argument regards the outsourcing process of financing campaigns and their interdependencies with out-of-state interests. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce states, "It has become quite common for ballot initiatives to be backed by well-funded, out-of-state interests". The go-to argument in all three states is an attempt to maintain the appearance of direct democracy by saying that, in the end, citizens are still the ones who decide. North Dakotan State Representative and measure sponsor David Hogue shared the argument: "It is, in my opinion, an improvement on what the founders established because it still gives the people the last word."
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Arguing that direct democratic law-making processes should be made more difficult because a state's constitution is changed too often shows that people with power are afraid to lose it. By suppressing the citizens’ right to bring a measure to the ballot, direct democracy is infringed upon. In North Dakota, Republicans, being the political party in control, supported North Dakota Constitutional Measure 2. "Lawmakers shouldn't impede the rights of the people" stated Democrat North Dakotan State Senator Tim Mathern and referred to the constitutional right of direct democracy. By restricting the process and implementing stricter requirements, only organizations with large amounts of funding would be able use the initiative and referendum processes. Thus the argument of cutting out-of-state interests by implementing a stricter process is delusional. In reality, the amendment would have made it twice as hard and twice as expensive for citizens' voices to be heard.
Ballot measures about ballot measures which intend to restrict direct democratic processes come from political operatives who fear voters' ability to send direct orders to their legislature and would instead prefer to make the process more cumbersome and expensive and, above all, protracted. Direct democracy has to be protected by the citizens, and in all three cases, they did indeed do so.