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Initiative and Referendum Express Popular Will That Is Unpopular with Legislators

Benjamin S. Case and Michael McQuarrie of the Center for Work and Demcoracy at Arizona State University have released “Majority Rules: The Battle for Ballot Initiatives,” a review of how voters in a couple dozen states are able to use initiatives and referenda to fight for “people-first policies” and how their legislatures and corporate special interests are resisting this check on elite power.

As voters have taken egalitarian issues to the polls and won, attacks on citizen initiatives have escalated. Corporate interests are pouring resources into the fight against specific initiatives that would improve the quality of life and enhance the decision-making power of working people, and governors and representatives in multiple states are working to roll back these policies when they pass. In some places, state legislatures and activist judiciaries are moving to dismantle initiatives altogether. Hundreds of bills have been proposed in state houses across the country to undermine or kill the initiative process.

Some legislatures brazenly refer referendums to voters that would have citizens sign away their right to initiatives—attempts that voters have mostly rejected. However, the most insidious attacks are less straightforward, often coming through inconspicuous and seemingly mundane changes to rules and regulations along with onerous and in some cases farcical requirements [Benjamin S. Case and Michael McQuarrie, “Majority Rules: The Battle for Ballot Initiatives,” ASU: Center for Work and Democracy, October 2022].

Initiative and referendum in the American birthplace of those sacred rights, South Dakota, figure prominently in Case and McQuarrie’s report. The authors note that South Dakotans’ passage of an annually indexed minimum wage in 2014 and their defense of that policy from Legislative rollback in 2016 demonstrate the fierceness with which voters want to maintain their ability to check the Legislature… even if they don’t show the same fierce checking impulse when they vote for legislators:

The disconnection between voters and their representatives was recently on display in South Dakota. More than 80% of South Dakota’s state legislators are Republican and it has been generations since a majority of the state’s voters chose a Democratic presidential candidate. South Dakota is run by Republicans, and opposition to raising the minimum wage has long been a standard Republican Party position. Yet in 2014
when South Dakota voters proposed a citizen initiative to increase the minimum wage, it passed with more than 55% of the vote.

Republican state legislators did not take the loss lying down, and quickly responded by rolling the increase back for teenage workers—a first step in further rollbacks, campaigners believed. In 2016, voters put that modification to a popular referendum and rebuked their representatives, this time with higher turnout and more than 71% of the vote, with more than 100,000 additional voters upholding the minimum wage increase for all workers than had initially voted for the increase two years earlier. In this instance, the citizen initiative and veto referendum allowed voters to have a direct hand in ensuring the policy they wanted was passed, even as their elected officials worked against them. Moreover, the gap between the initial 151,000 voters (55%) who approved the increase in 2014 and the 257,000 voters (71%) that chose to keep it in 2016 indicates that South Dakotans were even more compelled to defend their policy against legislative rollback than they were to support it in the first place [Case and McQuarrie, Oct 2022].

The authors speak with one activist who recognized in the defeat of the 2006 and 2008 ballot measures that initiative and referendum offer a chance to move voters past party labels and personalities into discussions of actual issues… and those discussions a reveal a more liberal, or at least centrist, electorate than the Republican dominance of candidate races indicates:

The first state to codify state ballot initiatives, South Dakota is back on the front lines of the struggle for popular voice in lawmaking. “The story in South Dakota over the past several years has been a battle between voters and elected representatives,” a long-time South Dakota political analyst told us. South Dakota ballot campaigners often framed the issue not just in terms of a particular policy fight, but also as a broader struggle for decision-making power. “When people vote on ballot measures, we tend to get away from the politics of personalities and party labels […] People think about, talk about, and vote on the issues.” He began taking serious note of citizen initiatives as an alternative to candidate elections in the early 2000s, when a pair of anti-reproductive-choice ballots were roundly rejected by voters.

…The analyst explained: “South Dakota is full of anti-abortion voices in the political sphere, even Democrats are scared to step out in front and say, ‘no, abortion is a right and it is basic healthcare.’” Yet when the question was put to voters, it became clear that “South Dakotans aren’t nearly as radical about their anti-abortion positions as their votes on candidates would seem to indicate” [Case and McQuarrie, Oct 2022].

Ballot measures help South Dakotans express their political will more completely than the Legislature alone does. We need to protect the right to initiative and referendum and exercise it vigorously to ensure a more perfect Union.


  1. Donald Pay 2022-11-08 08:29

    If South Dakotans didn’t have the initiative and referendum, Republican administrations would have blanketed the state with nuclear waste, hazardous waste, and several huge solid waste landfills for the nation’s garbage. Even the initiatives on mining that failed to pass caused those Administrations to increase regulation on those mines. There would be more Superfund sites in Lawrence County from lax regulation had those initiatives not been brought.

  2. Jake 2022-11-08 09:45

    It is very interesting, tho, upon reading this Arizona State publication, that the studies they show reflect how “Blue” states (with Democratic legislators on page 17) have acted just as badly toward their voters at times as have the “Red” (Republican states like ours)! Colorado for instance .

  3. Donald Pay 2022-11-08 10:12

    Jake, you are correct. People in power, no matter the party, act the same. They protect their power, which is often based on money, rather than protect democracy, which is based on people. That’s why they gerrymander. That’s why they try to hide information from the public. That is why they try to get away with holding meetings in secret or finding ways to skirt open meetings laws. It’s why they find ways to limit public comments. It’s why they use their power to make the democratic processes, including voting and petitioning for redress of grievances (initiative and referendum) difficult to use. It’s why they attempt to circumvent the ballot measures through lawsuits. It’s why they rewrite or repeal initiatives. It’s all the same attempt to negate the will of the people. Power corrupts.

  4. leslie 2022-11-08 10:32

    The study can not be copied and pasted initially (copyright or context concerns, likely) so it will be a bit more difficult to discuss here. No doubt Cory has cracked the key.

    It is essential to elect representatives that are more liberal to take on current red state/right wing obstruction and this study does not seem to enable that goal. This is a result of their long-game strategy billionaires now own that began 50-70 years ago with Joe McCarthy, Goldwater, Lewis Powell, Nixon, Reagan, Gingrich, and Newquist and carried forward by think tanks, culminating in second amendment SCOTUS captured hysteria of today’s Trumpists/Putinists.

    As a solution, citizen advocacy is rapidly being neutered. Our constitution is getting a hard look. If the voters don’t protect democracy it will be irrelevant.

  5. bearcreekbat 2022-11-08 10:34

    The observation of this remarkable contradiction in the thinking of SD voters who consistently vote for Republican representatives even though they openly advocating undermining humane public policies that the same voters favor is striking, but confusing. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld “What’s up with that?”

  6. Jake 2022-11-08 11:09

    “People, People, People!” (Slim Pickens) This little admonition quote has stuck with me ever since I first watched the slap-stick comedy that Mel brooks created called “Blazing Saddles”! When the townspeople acted so crazily over something in that ‘gut-wrencher of a movie.

  7. Mark Anderson 2022-11-08 11:49

    You know bearcreekbat, how and why people vote is taxing, and I’m not Grover Norquist. Take our shortstop Ron Desantis or as a certain con man says DeSanctimonious. His entire campaign for governor is ” he’s made Florida freer”. Now you can go down the list and it’s just a lie. It’s easy to prove. Are women freer ot more free as I’ll say. Are transgenders or any LGBTQ’s, hispanics, black, native American, the list goes on.
    All this freer is based on his killing tens of thousand people with at first inaction, then opposition, to anything related to covid. He definitely turned covid freer. His response was inept and callous. Now it’s his battle cry.
    You can go down any list of issues and it’s easy to see what people want. The people they vote for into office, frankly don’t give a dam.

  8. leslie 2022-11-08 12:31

    Such projects, wise, vetted, or not, can take multi-decades. Natl Geographic’s great recent King Tut detail concludes: The Great Egyptian Museum, signature project of the government began 20 years ago but delayed by the Arab Uprising and then the global pandemic, is many years behind schedule. My child and I stroller-ed thru The Seattle Museum in the late 70s enthralled by the traveling Tut exposition. So much NEW information and insight today :)

    Like western SD’s 30 year municipal water acquisition and storage project of the 80s, and the follow-up federal Black Hills Water inventory, were careful studies after Janklow’s boondoggle (like his credit card usury industry that has led to Kristi’s hidden billionaire trust industry) coal slurry pipeline that would have taken billions of gallons of water to the Platte River Basin of Wyoming, skipping SD entirely. Homestake still owns essentially all the Northern Hills water and some of the Central Hills water.

    Noem compromised DENR water regulation benefitting the billionaires and PUC is a wholly owned Republican subsidiary, probably still.

    SDSMT is apparently ready to repeat its ill-advised advocacy of using Missouri River and Indian water without adequate study, like its continuing gold exploitation using acid leach pads that strip-mine a gigantic swath of the Black Hills from Sturgis to the Wyoming border.

    Republican billionaires, using economic inequality, share or fund GOP’s long power-game, duping us all. Thune, Rounds, Johnson, Noem and Putin, as well as the murdering kings of Saudi Arabia are gleeful partners.

    What free speech? They own it. They murder for it.

  9. Donald Pay 2022-11-08 13:52

    Well, it’s often been the case that voter preferences for candidates are only loosely tied to a panoply of issues, whether defined as “liberal” issues or “conservative” issues, while candidates tend to be more attached to a party platform or ideological manifesto. If people vote on issues, they vote on one or two issues of concern, and ignore the broad scope of things. That’s why I’ve seen way too many ads on Wisconsin TV about crime and abortion, as party honchos drive the debate into narrow lines of thinking, hoping to drive people to the polls on hot button issues. Voters may be changing a bit, too, as ads train voters now to various silos. This is the “us” versus “them” approach to politics. Also, people vote on whether they think they know and can trust the candidate, based on a lot of variables. In the old days, and sometimes today, people felt more comfortable with someone of their own ethnic identity. So, for example, if you were a Norwegian-American candidate, you would have a German heritage campaign treasurer prominently listed on your campaign advertising. Same with religion. In Sioux Falls if the candidate was Catholic, he would make sure to have plenty of Protestant endorsements. It’s all pretty silly, in my mind, but that’s how some people vote.

  10. Arlo Blundt 2022-11-08 14:04

    Yes, Donald, you are correct about ethnic voting. Swedes and Norwegians have a foot up in statewide races. It is an indice favoring Monae Johnson.

  11. cibvet 2022-11-08 17:04

    Strange watching TV here in AZ when they interviewed someone who described himself as a “critical thinker.” When asked who he voted
    for, it was keri lake , blake masters and etc, down the line. For those who don’t know, most pubs running for any office in AZ.are election deniers.
    Also as you might remember, noem was down here helping these fools. Democracy will probably be lost today in these two states as most pubs are pathetically predictable.

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