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Ballot Initiatives: Making The Grade?

Two organizations release state-by-state report cards in order to clarify what has become the Wild West of grassroots politics: citizen-led ballot initiatives.
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If corporations can cut out the middleman, why not citizens?

That appears to be the logic behind grassroots organizations on the left and the right who have championed the use of citizen-led ballot initiatives to break legislative stalemates and enact much needed social or fiscal reform.

The ballot initiative system, which causes near constant controversy in the 24 states that allow it, gives average voters the ability to write and implement statewide legislation — and in some cases directly override elected officials.

Backers have championed this system as way to check bloated or inefficient bureaucracies that fail to meet a state’s interests. They insist that solving hot-button social or fiscal issues by a statewide vote allows the majority of citizens to be satisfied with the results (most of the time). Legislators, of course, bemoan these initiatives and argue that it unfairly ties the hands of those governing and subjects a state to the ever-shifting whims of a mostly uninformed populace.

The ballot initiatives themselves can be as effective, or as poorly conceived (see: CA 2008 Propositions 8)* as anything drafted by career politicians. Many get bogged down in endless court challenges (lower auto insurance rates, anyone?) or are blamed for fiscal crises years or decades later (Prop. 13).

One recent study (highlighted by Miller-McCune) suggests that ballot initiatives may unwittingly create distrust between citizens and their state governments (critics of the study might note that this “distrust” could be deeply rooted in states before the initiative system gained traction).

With many disparate opinions, it’s no surprise to see that two organizations have tried to clarify the matter with simple, state-by-state report cards — only to come to wildly varying conclusions about the process.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens In Charge Foundation, started by the libertarian-leaning Paul Jacob, recently released a guide that assesses the restrictions and accessibility each state provides for citizen-led ballot initiatives and referendums. Their report card comes on the heels of a similar assessment made by the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which was designed to expose states that are rife with the potential for ballot-measure fraud.


With the results from both “report cards” in, and the grades extremely low, perhaps these dueling organizations should have graded on a curve.

In the CIC Report Card, 30 states received a D or an F for creating an incoherent or burdensome system for citizens to propose ballot initiatives — or otherwise having no system in place at all. These states usually have high signature-gathering requirements and demand that all signatures must be equitably distributed by geography.

Citizens In Charge Foundation labeled “failing” states as likely to have very stringent requirements on how (workers can’t be paid per signature) and who (they can’t be from out of state) can be paid to perform the signature-gathering duties. Flunking states also tended to have legislatures that are clamping down on professional firms trying to finesse the system — which results in a process that may be even less accessible to average voters.

The research team at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center might debate these conclusions, if only because they clearly believe the initiative process is far too “open” (to ballot-measure fraud) and “accessible” (for professional signature gathers to make a buck) as it is.

In their assessment of the 24 states that allow ballot initiatives, BISC researchers found a system fraught with potential for manipulation and measure fraud. Twenty-two states received a D or an F for not placing enough restrictions on signature-gathering professional firms (dubbed “mercenaries” by the BISC).

These researchers cited the propensity for these professional gatherers to mislead voters about what they are actually signing, cheat the system through improper handling of signatures and use other scam techniques to boost their signature count to get a larger paycheck. They also note that many states (such as California and Florida) do not ban circulators who have been convicted of recent fraud or forgery from circulating petitions. States that the Citizens In Charge Foundation has singled out for “exorbitantly high” signature counts are deemed by BISC as having a “reasonable amount of signatures to dissuade frivolous filings.”

Not surprisingly, the two organizations disagreed vehemently about California’s infamous system. In perhaps one of the few good grades the state has received for anything recently, Citizens In Charge Foundation lauded California with a B+ for giving residents access to local initiatives and allowing citizens to propose simple statutes by petition. It failed to receive a higher grade only because gatherers have “just” five months to gather the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify for a ballot initiative and also for banning nonresidents from collecting these signatures.

The BISC gave the Golden State a flat F for, among other reasons, not creating stricter oversight and enforcement techniques (not listing specific penalties for petition circulators who violate wage and hour requirements) and allowing circulation companies to pay signature gathers “on the sole basis of the number of signatures they collect.”

While low grades on the report cards issued might be an effort to clearly articulate their assessment to voters (and perhaps drum up attention in the media), they also illustrate the potential and the pitfalls of an electoral system dominated solely by citizens. Clearly, what the Citizens In Charge Foundation views as giving voters a very direct, and potentially very powerful, tool to shape state legislation, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center sees as paving the way for a system rife for corruption.

“If you make the process easier for the average person it will be easier for the special interests,” said Jacob of the Citizens in Charge Foundation. Still, he cautioned, “the tougher you make the process, the only people who will be able to navigate this system will be the special interests because they have giant war chests and professionals.”

Average voters, it seems, are firmly caught between the grasp of legislators who make it increasingly difficult for citizen-led initiatives to gain any traction and special interests who may manipulate the system for their own gains.

* This story initially referenced California ballot proposition 1A as an example. As reader Leslie Graves pointed out, 1A was a bond proposition referred to the ballot by the California Legislature, and not a citizen-initiated measure.

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