When Kansas voters earlier this month rejected a ballot initiative that would have made it easier for the state legislature to restrict or ban abortion, it was only the latest example of otherwise red-state voters backing a measure seemingly out of step with their usual politics.
Over the past decade, voters in 12 states have passed minimum wage increases, including states as reliably Republican as South Dakota and Missouri. Six red states have also expanded Medicaid eligibility via ballot initiative after their Republican legislatures failed to do so under the new rules created by the Affordable Care Act. And since a nationwide movement to legalize marijuana began in the late 1990s, a whopping 36 states have either legalized or decriminalized medical marijuana, including by ballot initiative in conservative states like Utah and Oklahoma.
Part of the reason these measures have passed is because they’re popular. Still, in many of these cases, they were unlikely to have passed Republican-controlled state legislatures. It’s why in some states, the state legislatures are now pushing back, trying to make it harder to pass ballot measures. “We do see a direct relationship between progressive measures passing in red states and legislators creating barriers to the ballot initiative process, or really looking to eliminate it all together,” said Corrine Rivera Fowler, the director of policy and legal advocacy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group that organizes to put initiatives on the ballot around the country.
This, in turn, perhaps raises a more fundamental question: Why do voters in these states so frequently support progressive ballot legislation while also voting for candidates who oppose these very efforts?
Arkansas, in particular, is an interesting case. One of the only states in the South to have a ballot initiative system for amending the state constitution and passing new state laws, it also has a fairly low threshold for getting issues onto the ballot.1 Moreover, ballot initiatives in the state require just a simple majority to pass.
Using ballot initiatives, Arkansas voters have in the last decade increased the state’s minimum wage twice and legalized medical marijuana (the first Southern state to do so). This November, meanwhile, voters can decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use, although whether the votes will be counted remains in legal limbo.
Partly because of the success of these efforts, Arkansas will also vote on another ballot initiative in November: Issue 2, which has been pushed forward by the state legislature and will make ballot initiatives more difficult to pass. Ballot initiatives, whether they are for statutes or constitutional amendments, would require a 60 percent majority rather than a simple majority in order to pass.
The initiative’s sponsor, state Rep. David Ray, a Republican from a suburb of Little Rock, told a local NPR affiliate that the state’s process that allows voters to pass laws and to amend the state constitution was too easy. “That process is fairly easy for big money or out-of-state interests to hijack because all they have to do is spend a large sum of money in a relatively short window of time and temporarily convince people that something is a good idea,” Ray said. “And then viola, it’s in the constitution forever and ever.”
This isn’t the first time the Arkansas state legislature has tried to change the ballot initiative process. In 2020, it referred a constitutional amendment that would increase the number of signatures required to get initiatives on the ballot, but the amendment lost 56 to 44 percent. And this year, state legislatures in Arizona and South Dakota, along with Arkansas, all proposed ballot initiatives that would change the ballot initiative process, either making it harder for voters to pass measures or granting the state legislature more control over the process. In Colorado, a ballot initiative would require fiscal impact summaries to be prepared before signature gathering and displayed on petitions, adding steps to the process. South Dakota voters rejected that effort in their state’s June primary. The Arkansas measure also doesn’t seem popular: A February poll from Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College found that 53 percent of people said they’d probably or definitely vote against it.
But even if these measures fail, legislatures still have other methods at their disposal that could make ballot initiatives harder to pass, or to get them in front of voters in the first place. They can pass laws on their own that add new requirements around the language for proposals, the rules around obtaining the signatures required to get initiatives on the ballot or require extra or earlier steps to the approval process. “As you see states become more single-minded, that means some states are going to try to rein in the mechanisms of control that are out there,” Craig Burnett, a political scientist at Hofstra University, said.
While people generally seem to like ballot initiatives, there is good evidence that voters don’t know a lot about most ballot initiatives before they reach the voting booth. Political scientists Janine Parry of the University of Arkansas, Jay Barth of Hendrix College in Arkansas and Burnett found in a 2019 paper that only about 24 to 30 percent of voters could identify a single ballot initiative before going to the polls in two election years in Arkansas, 2014 and 2016. “There’s some breakthrough with … morals issues, the things that folks have an opinion on,” Barth said. “But that’s kind of the exception rather than the rule.” That paper also argued that many of the ways political scientists have tried to measure what voters know about ballot initiatives before they go to the polls actually overestimates voter knowledge. This means the ballot initiative might not always deliver on its promises of a more engaged and informed electorate, especially if voters are asked to make too many complicated decisions they don’t have time to research.
Most of the time, though, it doesn’t matter that voters aren’t steeped in the details of ballot initiatives. In fact, it actually might be a good thing, as it means voters aren’t relying on partisanship heuristics and other clues to make their choices. Instead, the first time many voters learn about ballot initiatives is when they see them in the voting booth, and they make their decisions then.
The fact that ballot initiatives are often separated from politics might make these measures easier for some voters to support, too. People identify with a party for many more reasons than one issue alone, and so they’re not going to change their party affiliation or vote over something like a ballot measure. “The power of partisanship is very strong,” Barth said. “At the end of the day, [voters] can have Republicans in office who share many of their values, but they still, through the direct democracy process, can get these certain policies that they care a lot about put in place.”
Because voters often don’t know much about ballot initiatives before voting, they’re also not usually comparing them to candidates’ stances on those issues, either. Moreover, candidates can be incentivized to not take a stand: There might be an initiative that’s popular with the state overall but not with their base or with their district. “The average legislator, I think probably very smartly, would dodge those questions, right? They’d say, ‘Well, it’s, it’s up to the people to decide,’” Burnett said.
Kansas’s abortion vote is a good example of the difference between partisan incentives and voter preference. Before the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion in June, only about 10 to 15 percent of voters nationwide supported the sorts of near-total bans that many Republican-led state legislatures are passing. But a key component of the Republican Party’s base, white evangelicals, is much more likely to think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases than the population as a whole, which is part of the reason the party is enacting those unpopular laws.
It’s why in Kansas, the group organizing voters against the recent amendment emphasized broad common ground on the issue of abortion — rather than talking about specific kinds of restrictions, which can divide more sharply along partisan lines. “I think what we did that was important was that we made it OK for people to have differing views on choice,” said Ashley All, the communications director for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, a bipartisan group that opposed amending the state constitution. “Regardless of their personal beliefs about the issue … they always came back to the fact that they believe that should be a decision that a woman can make for herself and her family.” She said Kansan voters didn’t see the issue in terms of pro-life or pro-choice, but instead as “fundamental rights to make decisions about your own body.”
There’s also another component to this: Voters seem to like the idea of constraining the legislature instead of giving them total control over the democratic process. After all, Kansans chose to keep a previous constitutional amendment that enshrined abortion rights so that the legislature couldn’t pass stricter laws. Barth says another ballot initiative may test this idea in November in Arkansas. The legislature also put an initiative on the ballot that would give legislators the ability to call themselves into a special legislative session, which currently, only the governor has the ability to do. This is largely in response to the emergency measures Gov. Asa Hutchinson enacted during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I do think it’s going to be a real test on where folks come down on how much power the legislature should have,” Barth said.
But what the Kansas votes, and all of these votes, might underscore is that the mood is shifting in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, at least on abortion. An Ipsos/USA Today Poll published Aug. 10 found that 70 percent of respondents would support their state using a ballot measure to determine abortion rights at the state level. “This is such a hot issue, and the numbers are so stable in terms of public opinion … are people going to be wanting their elected representatives to take positions on [abortion initiatives]?” Burnett said. “That, I think, is something new.”
Burnett said this could be true with other similarly easy-to-understand issues that voters already have strong attitudes about, which could raise the profile of ballot initiatives more generally. Rivera Fowler says her group is working to add ballot initiatives to 2024 ballots in many states that would help bolster, rather than attack, direct democracy in those states. Additionally, while the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center doesn’t campaign for or support particular candidates, it is working with state partners to educate voters more on how these issues are linked, and that the actions candidates take, or don’t take, once they’re in office matter, too. “Voters are not connecting policy and politics,” she said. “And we need to help them understand that those two are very much related.”
CORRECTION(Aug 30, 11:46 a.m.): A previous version of this article did not attribute Arkansas state Rep. David Ray’s quote to NPR. It has been updated to reflect that Ray told NPR this, not FiveThirtyEight.