The Past, Present, and Future of Ballot Initiatives

In the midterm elections last week, five ballot initiatives were introduced regarding abortion. Ballot initiatives—also called ballot measures, voter initiatives, or propositions—allow the citizens of most U.S. states to put new legislation on the ballot to be voted on during an election. In California, Michigan, and Vermont, the propositions, which established state constitutional rights to abortion, were passed by voters. In Kansas and Kentucky, voters rejected an anti-abortion measure that would have affirmed that there is no state constitutional right to abortion. Nowhere in the United States did voters approve an anti-abortion ballot initiative or reject a pro-abortion initiative—voters consistently voted to protect the right to abortion, even in traditionally red states like Kansas and Kentucky. 

Voter turnout is consistently 5-10% higher for elections where there is an initiative on the ballot compared to elections where there is no initiative on the ballot. This phenomenon, coupled with extremely high national voter turnout for young people (ages 18-25) and women, groups who historically vote blue and to whom abortion access is generally important, led to pro-abortion results for ballot measures concerning abortion.

Several different forms of ballot initiatives and referendums have been used in American politics and government since the 1770s. The ballot initiative as we know it began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way for progressives to work around unresponsive state governments. The use of voter initiatives has ebbed and flowed over the past 120 years, but initiatives consistently address the most pressing and polarizing political issues of the day. In the 1910s, these issues were women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the direct election of senators. Today, these issues are abortion, medical debt, and even the future of ballot measures themselves. 

There has long been tension between the use of voter initiatives to create policy and attempts to take power from this process; this tension can be seen in ballot initiatives just this year. South Dakota voted via ballot measure to expand Medicaid, but only after voters rejected a question that put constraints on the initiative and referendum process. Nebraska, Nevada, and Washington D.C. voters raised the minimum wage, Coloradans voted for an affordable housing plan, and New Mexico voters expanded child care access, all via voter initiative. When everyday citizens are able, they take policy matters into their own hands, often frustrated with their state and local governments for not acting on issues that matter to them. 

However, in many states, the future of the ballot measure is at risk, posing a danger to the democratic process in the United States. Frequently in the past ten years, propositions have been used to enact progressive policies in conservative states, such as legalizing marijuana in Montana and voting rights restoration for most felons in Florida. Republicans have responded by making the voter initiative process increasingly difficult: in South Dakota, a new font size requirement has forced people gathering signatures to carry pieces of paper that unfold to the size of a beach towel; and Mississippi’s State Supreme Court threw out the entire ballot initiative process on a technicality in 2021.

The attack on the ballot measure process is a blatant move by Republicans to limit the ability of everyday people to participate in their state and local government. In states where Democrats have no control over either chamber of the legislature, the gubernatorial seat, or the courts, “[b]allot measures remain the one true muscle that the people have to flex,” said the director of The Fairness Project, Kelly Hall. In states where the legislature is already unrepresentative due to gerrymandering and voter suppression, some voters’ most effective way to make their voices heard is through the voter initiative process.

The ballot initiatives passed—and the ones that failed—in the midterms were a decisive win for the pro-choice movement. The results demonstrate that, even in red states, voters value and will protect the right to abortion. However, as ballot measures become harder to pass, the threat to abortion rights will continue to grow as voters lose an invaluable method of democratic participation.