By Scott S. Greenberger, Stateline
Roused by voters’ recent endorsement of abortion rights — even in conservative states — Republican legislators are ramping up efforts to make it tougher for citizens to change laws or amend state constitutions through ballot measures.
Some of the GOP proposals would set new signature-gathering rules, making it harder to place an initiative on the ballot. Others would require a 60% supermajority of state voters, instead of a simple majority, to approve a measure.
Earlier this month, the Missouri House passed legislation that would require a 60% supermajority to approve a voter-initiated constitutional amendment. An Ohio bill would set a 60% threshold and require petition signatures from all 88 Ohio counties, instead of the current 44, to get a measure on the ballot.
In Florida, which already requires a 60% supermajority to amend the constitution, a bill would raise the standard to nearly 67%.
If the Missouri, Ohio and Florida legislatures approve the bills, voters would be asked to affirm those changes by a simple majority in Missouri and Ohio and by the current 60% standard in Florida. Bills to make the ballot initiative process harder also are pending in Idaho, Oklahoma, North Dakota and other states.
The GOP pushback has been building for several years, as voters have circumvented Republican-dominated legislatures to approve a host of progressive ballot initiatives, including Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization, independent redistricting panels, minimum wage increases, voting rights for former felons, and paid sick and family leave.
But recent abortion rights victories on ballot measures in six states — including conservative Kansas, Kentucky and Montana — have raised the stakes. Abortion rights supporters, emboldened by those victories, are gearing up to put more measures on the ballot. By requiring supermajorities and tightening signature rules, Republicans hope to make the task tougher.
Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, which backs progressive state ballot measures across the country, described last year’s abortion rights victories as “accelerant on an already burning fire.” But Hall also pointed to recent triumphs on issues such as Medicaid expansion and minimum wage hikes as driving factors. She said the GOP’s antipathy toward ballot initiatives points to a broader problem for the party.
“All of these are not only policies that these red state legislatures don’t support, but they also reveal the widening gap between the policy platforms of these extremist legislatures and what their voters actually support,” Hall told Stateline in an interview. “And that is an uncomfortable place to be as a governing party, and it also creates a reaction.”
Last year, lawmakers in roughly two-dozen states filed 109 bills to alter the ballot initiative process, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which supports progressive ballot measures nationwide. Abortion likely will drive this year’s total beyond that figure, according to Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the group.
“What 2022 showed us is how ballot measures can transcend party lines,” she told Stateline. “So now you’re seeing, in states where there are Republican trifectas or Republican control, efforts to undermine the will of the people.”
Some states don’t require voter approval to make such changes. In South Dakota, for example, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem in 2021 signed GOP-backed legislation requiring the type size on ballot initiative petitions to be at least 14 points, about a fifth of an inch. Since the South Dakota secretary of state mandates that the text and signatures for an initiative fit on a single sheet of paper, signature-gatherers now must carry around blanket-sized petitions.
Last year, voters in Arizona and Arkansas were asked to approve changes to the ballot initiative process, with mixed results. Arizona voters approved a proposition raising the threshold to enact constitutional amendments related to taxes to 60%, but they rejected another proposed amendment that would have allowed the legislature to more easily repeal citizen-led ballot initiatives that voters had approved.
In Arkansas, voters rejected a measure that would have raised the threshold for ballot initiatives to amend the state constitution to 60%.
Republican lawmakers and their allies argue they are the ones trying to carry out the people’s will. Tightening ballot measure requirements will curb frivolous constitutional amendments, they say, and ensure that elected officials, not special interests from out of state, determine how the state is governed.
“This is our constitution. It’s a sacred document. You don’t change it willy-nilly,” Missouri Republican House Speaker Dean Plocher told St. Louis Public Radio after the House approved the supermajority bill. “And we shouldn’t be changing our constitution just because out-of-state money and interests that have very little connection to Missouri want to affect Missourians’ quality of life.”
Ohio Republican state Rep. Brian Stewart sounded a similar theme in filing his bill. In addition to raising the threshold for passage to 60% and requiring signatures from all 88 Ohio counties, Stewart’s legislation would eliminate the “cure period” during which petitioners can gather additional signatures if they fell short of the required number with their initial submission.
“Our Founding Fathers ensured that the United States Constitution would be protected against outside influence and special interests by requiring a supermajority vote for amendments,” Stewart said in a statement. “We can and should protect the Ohio Constitution in a similar way.”
However, in a letter to his fellow House Republicans obtained by The Plain Dealer, Stewart emphasized that his bill would make it more difficult for abortion rights advocates to amend the state constitution.
“After decades of Republicans’ work to make Ohio a pro-life state, the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio’s Constitution,” Stewart wrote. “If they succeed, all the work accomplished by multiple Republican majorities will be undone, and we will return to 19,000+ babies being aborted each and every year.”
Roughly half the states allow ballot initiatives, veto referendums (in which voters can uphold or repeal a law passed by the legislature) or both. Eighteen states have a provision for voter-initiated constitutional amendments.
Most states adopted their provisions in the first two decades of the 20th century, during the Progressive Era, as reformers sought to curb the influence that so-called robber barons — big bankers, industrialists and railroad tycoons — wielded over state legislatures. Progressives hoped that, along with the direct election of U.S. senators (rather than by legislatures), women’s suffrage and direct primary elections, initiatives and referendums would revitalize American democracy.
The Progressive Era was a reaction to the Gilded Age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Widening wealth inequality and the rise of tech tycoons in 21st century America have prompted some historians to describe the current era as a second Gilded Age. Once again, progressives say, wealthy individuals and corporations are wielding undue influence over public policy.
Initiatives and referendums enable the public to counter that influence, according to Hall, of the Fairness Project. More corporate money and lobbying in state legislatures “means that the issues that get pushed to the agenda forefront are either the things that are truly red meat for the partisan base or the interests of corporations,” she said. “There’s not as much appetite for doing the hard work of figuring out the policies that work for working families.”
Hall also pointed to gerrymandering and political polarization as factors that have pushed many state legislatures to the extremes, away from the views and concerns of most voters.
For example, last year’s abortion rights victories showed that even in conservative states, most voters don’t support bans without exceptions.
“As we have seen in both Kansas and Michigan, there are popular majorities that would oppose the most restrictive approach to abortion,” John Sides, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, wrote in an email to Stateline. “So, if Republicans are going to preserve their ability to restrict abortion, including with laws that appear to go beyond what the public prefers, they need to restrict direct democracy.”
Later this month, a coalition of Ohio reproductive rights groups plans to submit a proposed abortion rights constitutional amendment to the state attorney general, the first step in placing it on the November ballot. It’s unclear whether the amendment requiring a higher threshold for passage can be approved before then, as supporters earlier this week missed a key filing deadline for putting that proposal on the May ballot.
Ohio Right to Life supports raising the threshold for passage of constitutional amendments to 60%. But Mike Gonidakis, president of the group, said its position has nothing to do with fears that most Ohioans would like to overturn the state’s strict ban on abortion. He pointed out that Ohio voters have elected two outspoken anti-abortion governors in a row, Republicans John Kasich and Mike DeWine.
Instead, Gonidakis said, his group supports a higher standard for ballot measures because “we should not prostitute our state constitution.”
“We elect men and women, Democrats and Republicans, in the House and Senate and a governor to debate these issues and come up with the best policy,” Gonidakis told Stateline. He also noted that the Ohio Chamber of Commerce supports the measure.
“There’s no average Ohioan who wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to spend $2 million to go out and collect signatures and change the constitution,’” he said. “These are always out-of-state interest groups, from California to New York City, that want to come in and get their pet project, and the best way they can do it is to bring countless dollars and prostitute our constitution. It’s wrong.”
But Fields Figueredo, of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said raising the threshold for passage and tightening signature requirements will just raise the cost of ballot measures, making it easier for monied outside groups to roll over local interests. She and other progressives who have successfully pushed through ballot measures say in-state organizations are the driving force behind them.
These are “attempts to create a web of technicalities that will thwart the ability of citizens to make progress in their states and allow voters and communities to use the people’s tool to make immediate, positive changes in their lives,” she said. “If anything, it makes it harder and increases the need for people from outside the state to engage.”
In Missouri, even some conservatives are uneasy about requiring a supermajority of voters to approve constitutional amendments. At a hearing earlier this week, some former GOP lawmakers testified against a Senate version of the House-approved bill, emphasizing the importance of allowing citizens to express their will through direct democracy.
“It gives voters the freedom to determine the laws that govern us and serves as a fundamental check and balance on the legislature,” former Republican state Sen. Bob Johnson said.