In many states, including Michigan, campaign measures have addressed a myriad of issues: minimum wage, funding for education, expanding health insurance eligibility and legalizing marijuana. But winning the vote is only part of the fight. In 2018, 65% of Florida voters supported Amendment 4 to restore felons’ voting rights, but delays, confusion and restrictive policies on paying fines have blunted the measure’s true impact. “Letting the people speak” turns out not to be simple.
The stakes are evident in these voting proposals which relate to direct democracy itself. Arizona voters will weigh the proposals extend the capacity of the legislator repeal or modify approved voting proposals. As one opponent argued, because “some wealthy politicians and corporations don’t like the decisions” voters have made, “they’re trying to rewrite the rules to get what they want, no matter what the community wants. majority”.
These fights are the last battles of a deeper struggle over the meaning of popular sovereignty. The Founders fell squarely in the middle – or perhaps in confusion. The Constitution included elements of direct and indirect representation (the House and the Senate, respectively), but stipulated that ratification would be made not by state legislatures, but by popular conventions embodying “the only just source of authority – the people.But if the people were to govern, should that power be direct or indirect? While some argue that it can be reduced to a stark choice between “a democracy or a republic”, over the past two centuries the response embodied in our political institutions has been both.
This intrinsic ambivalence fueled waves of conflict, change and invention, including the mobilizations that established what we now call direct democracy. By the end of the 19th century, there was a chorus of complaints that, allegedly, democratic institutions were no longer accountable to citizens. Repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to advance causes ranging from worker protections to women’s suffrage, advocates have advanced their case for new methods this would allow the “people” to have a direct say in political decisions and protect the growing powers of state government from corruption and capture.
These militants saw themselves at war with legislative assemblies and political parties, direct democracy being their best weapon. Ballot initiatives have allowed citizens to present their own proposals, undermining the ability of lawmakers, lobbyists, donors and party leaders to keep issues off the agenda. The referendum, which could be demanded by the legislators or demanded by the voters, constituted a brake on the power of the elected. The direct primary and recall gave voters – rather than parties – the power to select and discipline their representatives. A final measure, direct election of senators by voters (rather than selection by the legislature) was ratified in 1913 as the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As one supporter rejoices, “The Initiative, the Referendum and the Recall are the weapons of the people!
Calls for direct democracy have been particularly intense in Western states and parts of the Midwest. In 1898, South Dakota was the first to adopt the initiative and referendum (although initiatives to change the state constitution were not added for more than 70 years). Over the next two decades, nearly 20 other states followed suit, adopting some or all of the elements of direct democracy.
Oregon, above all, housed the People’s Power League, which ensured the passage of the trio initiative, referendum and recall. At the head of this movement was William S. U’Ren, who understood these efforts as a path to a fundamental limitation of the power of legislatures and their isolation from popular preferences and demands. In the East, liberal elites and intellectuals adopted a moderate position in which direct democracy figured as a seldom-used check on elected officials rather than a meaningful alternative to legislative efforts themselves.
These new weapons enabled Americans to fight interests they saw as subjugating them. In 1913, the president of the Washington State Federation of Labor said citizens must be “prepared to fight” against lobbies, legislatures and parties to secure social and industrial justice. Their battle plan? To take advantage of the adoption by Washington, Oregon and California of “the initiative, the referendum, the recall and the direct primary”, which could be “methods of warfare to accomplish the real will of a majority of our people”.
In the long term, this optimism was not entirely justified. Even as these new methods were adopted, critics accused these “unhealthy innovations” would substitute the popular will for the reasoned deliberations of elected officials. Whether backed by popular opinion or corporate initiative, the growing number of successful initiatives restricts the space for action of the legislatures. Critics on the left and right have also complained that direct democracy draws the courts deeper into electoral politics as they are called upon to determine whether ballot proposals have met the requirements of state law. – then to interpret a sometimes vague language.
Where grassroots movements had once provided the mechanisms for collecting signatures for initiatives, candidates and corporations have cultivated a new industry of political advice to support ballot proposals that advance their own interests – often masked by language legal system that would mystify many voters. California Proposal 13passed in 1978 to limit property tax increases, illustrates how individual political entrepreneurs can advance new policy through ballot proposals that, in the case of Proposition 13, would profoundly alter state fiscal policy to the decades to come.
Complex issues such as auto insurance regulation have been targeted by competing initiatives in a single election. If more than one proposal were adopted, the measure receiving the most votes would become law. Insurance companies, litigators and consumer groups have all poured huge sums into the effort to ‘fix’ the initiative, echoing the efforts of earlier era ‘interests’ to ‘fix’ legislatures and municipal councils.
In this high-stakes, no-holds-barred war for direct democracy, opposing sides are looking for legal technicalities to bring down ballot initiatives. For example, in Michigan, the “Reproductive Freedom for All” measure was only passed in 2022 after the state rejected a challenge based on improper spacing on printed petitions, which threatened to upend the principle of popular sovereignty.
Beyond these battles over technicalities, activists’ success in getting measures on the ballot and getting them passed has fueled efforts to make it harder. This fall’s ballot in Arizona is just one example of such countermeasures. In Arkansas, lawmakers have introduced a proposal that would require a 60% supermajority to approve ballot measures. South Dakota voters rejected a similar measure over the summer, which would have imposed a supermajority requirement for tax and spending initiatives. This proposal was designed to make it more difficult to expand Medicaid eligibility.
These ongoing disputes over the power and scope of direct democracy remind us that political innovations – including direct democracy as “the weapons of the people” – can be brought forward for a single cause to be borrowed, modified and put to good use. deliberately by other interests. Speaking at Gettysburg in November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln assured his audience “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But in the same breath, he called this political system “unfinished business”. With the current election season, direct democracy is very present, both as a vehicle for political issues and as an effective means for the people to express themselves. It reminds us that Lincoln’s words remain prophetic because our political system remains “unfinished business.”