In classrooms across the United States, American children learn the basic structure of their government, a system comprised of three branches of elected and appointed officials. They are taught the difference between democratically elected republics around the world and direct democracy. The classic 5th century Athenian democracy in which its citizens (albeit a voting-eligible minority) voted directly on legislative bills isn’t supposed to exist in the United States or other democratic republics.
In increasing numbers, however, forms of direct democracy are permeating our republic — and for the better. The rules and processes for citizen-initiated and legislative-generated proposals like ballot initiatives are complex. Eighteen states allow their citizens to propose constitutional amendments to the state constitution by signature, twenty-two permit state statutes on the ballot via signature, and all but Delaware allow citizens to vote on constitutional amendments proposed by the state legislature. Ballot initiatives are an underutilized and under-appreciated aspect of our democracy. They can positively impact democracies around the globe if strategically utilized in local and state-level elections, particularly in low-turnout events, such as midterm elections.
National popular votes, and especially state-level and local referendums, are becoming standard practice in elections, allowing everyday citizens to impact their governments in previously unachievable ways. Evidence suggests that these initiatives increase voter turnout, especially in low-turnout years, helping to maintain an informed and robust populace. Additionally, these votes give citizens the ability to hold their elected officials accountable beyond trying to oust them from office, which is often a more challenging endeavor.
Low voter turnout is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Although slightly higher in presidential elections, voter participation has been falling for decades and is lower than in most other developed countries. Despite political advantages for some to maintain low turnout, a frustrated, disconnected, and apathetic populace should be of significant concern to all. Ballot initiatives are an interesting and rather apolitical remedy to fight this decline. Research focusing on the late 20th century in the United States shows the positive effect that initiatives can have on states. Voter turnout was estimated to be 7% to 9% higher in midterm years when citizen-led initiatives were included on the ballot and 3% to 4.5% higher in presidential elections in the 1990s. These numbers have only been on the rise since the 1970s. A separate study conducted in the years following shows similar findings: “On average, turnout in presidential elections increases by 0.70% with each initiative on the ballot, whereas turnout in midterm elections increases by 1.7%, all else equal.”
This turnout-bump may be explained by increasing engagement and competitiveness. Voting on a consequential and closely-fought statewide issue may be far more attractive than voting in a landslide election for your Congressional representative to win another term. Ballot initiatives help to alleviate frustration that many Americans feel about the irrelevance of their single vote. They have great potential to help citizens feel as though their votes matter.
The Brookings Institute argues that the Republican and Democratic parties strategically place ballot initiatives to drive turnout in needed areas. For example, in 2004, the Republicans put gay marriage on the ballot in key states to help drive their base to the polls. Additionally, unlike changing voter identification or eligibility laws, this method of increasing turnout avoids many of the explicitly partisan trappings of other mechanisms. Through the use of ballot initiatives, political parties are incentivized to enfranchise voters who sympathize with their ideology rather than disenfranchise those who likely oppose their beliefs. Critically, these initiatives are accessible to members of both parties across all states whose laws permit them, regardless of which party holds power.
Ballot initiatives represent a tremendous outlet for grassroots activism. Rather than driving support for a candidate who may or may not be able to achieve his or her campaign promises in Congress, campaigning for ballot initiatives is issue-specific and demonstrably impactful. Moreover, state and local initiatives can often transcend traditional party lines. Conservative policies can play in liberal areas and vice versa. For example, in the 2018 midterms, Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah, three solidly red states, voted to expand Medicaid, defying the wishes of the Republican party nationally. Conversely, the hotly-contested carbon-tax in the deep-blue Washington state was soundly defeated, frustrating liberals across the country. Activists should exploit these mechanisms to, at worst, drive voters to the polls, and at best, win meaningful policy changes.
The proliferation of direct democracy is not a distinctly American development. In fact, national popular votes, not even allowed in the United States, are critical to the voting landscape in a number of other democracies, especially across Europe. The Washington Post reports that over 80% of nations globally have engaged in national referendums, and over half of these votes have been held in the last 30 years.
Critics of citizen referendums, especially on the national level, point to the possibility for populist rhetoric to overwhelm smart policy considerations. In some sense, this is correct. It is far easier for populism to affect national policy through popular proposals rather than elected officials, as can be seen through Brexit or other popular manifestations. This mindset obscures the full picture, however. Even without citizen referendums, nations are by no means immune to populist insurgencies. The United States and Turkey, both democracies, have popularly elected leaders, Presidents Trump and Erdogan. Perhaps popular referendums might help avoid these outcomes; if populist measures can be achieved at the ballot-box, then populist leaders need not be installed to execute them on a more institutional and permanent level.
Unfortunately, politicians have little incentive to promote citizen initiated proposals, as this process only serves to decentralize power. Lowering thresholds for signatures and minimizing red-tape would likely lead to a busier ballot; however, states seem in little rush to make these changes. In many ways, it is up to the people to serve themselves. In the most fundamental way, participating in citizen-led initiatives is exercising the right to vote and making your voice heard. Politicians do not make these choices for their people; this is direct democracy in action.