In a flood of ballot proposals following Colorado’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana, interest groups are seeking to reverse or change laws by taking pet causes directly to voters.
Campaigns that start with petition drives in grocery-store parking lots are playing out in media blitzes that bypass the state legislature. This year, the largest crop of ballot initiatives in a decade seeks to limit energy drilling; overturn a gun law enacted after a mass shooting; and declare a fetus a human being in a potential step toward outlawing abortion.
“This is accelerating and it’s not the way a democracy should work,” said Richard Lamm, a former Colorado Democrat governor who is co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver. “Our founding fathers would roll over in their graves if they thought public policy was made this way.”
While proponents say their efforts are a response to legislative paralysis, concern is mounting among Colorado lawmakers that ballot initiatives are being used to undo their work -- such as a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines passed last year after a gunman killed 12 at an Aurora movie theater. When attempts to limit oil and gas drilling and declare a fetus a human being were unsuccessful at the capitol, advocates drafted ballot proposals.
“Special interests are the only ones that are able to mount these kinds of campaigns, and I defy you to find a citizen initiative that has gotten onto the ballot in the last two decades without paying for signatures,” said State Representative Lois Court, a Democrat from Denver who co-sponsored a resolution to raise the number of signatures needed to amend the state constitution.
Initiatives are being floated to skirt legislatures in states including Oregon, California, Ohio and Missouri, said Jennie Bowser, a Portland, Oregon-based political consultant and former elections policy analyst for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
“In most cases, this isn’t a citizen-driven populist thing,” Bowser said. “It is moneyed interests funding the signature gathering drives.”
Advocates in Colorado often have more luck with voters than with elected representatives, said Rick Ridder, president of Denver-based RBI Strategies and Research, a political consulting firm, who is working on measures to control hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and require labeling of genetically modified foods.
“Let’s take marijuana -- there’s no way that would have passed the legislature,” Ridder said. “The people are the ultimate legislature.”
In Missouri, advocates are circulating an early-voting proposal that would allow greater use of absentee ballots, after the state legislature advanced a plan they said didn’t go far enough.
“This is a huge grassroots effort and the faith community is stepping up in a real way,” said Andrew Kling, communications director at Communities Creating Opportunity, a Kansas City, Missouri-based group backing the measure. “They are seeing this as a way to help shift the balance of power back to the community.”
When efforts to pass a medical marijuana bill failed in the Ohio legislature, proponents drafted a ballot initiative and are now shopping for signatures.
“It’s hard to get anything substantive through the state legislature anymore,” said Peg Rosenfield, elections specialist for the Columbus-based League of Women Voters of Ohio. “There’s so much infighting going on they can’t get anything done -- if you can’t get anywhere in the legislature, you go to the ballot and hope voters will do it.”
Burgeoning populism may also be encouraged by an April 22 U.S. Supreme court ruling that upheld a Michigan constitution amendment banning affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities.
With a long tradition of direct democracy, Colorado ranks third in the nation behind Oregon and California in the number of ballot measures proposed. A total of 145 ballot titles were proposed in Colorado in 2013 and 2014, the highest number since 2003-2004, and the most of any state.
For the 2014 ballot, 89 measures were proposed in California, 63 in Missouri and Oregon and 47 in Ohio. In most other states that allow initiatives or referendums, several dozen titles or less were put forward. About 605 such measures were proposed nationwide for this election season, according to Ballotpedia, an online election almanac, the largest number since 2010.
In Colorado, lawmakers are seeking to change rules that perpetuate the initiative culture. The state is the only one in the country where requirements for placing statutory changes and amendments to the constitution on the ballot are the same.
The Colorado House passed a resolution on April 24 that would make it more difficult to amend the state constitution by requiring the collection of 160,000 signatures -- double the current amount -- from all seven of the state’s congressional districts. If endorsed by the Senate, the question would be referred to voters this fall.
A small percentage of the proposed titles this year will make it to November, given the challenges and expense of circulating petitions and running a media campaign. Getting an initiative on the ballot requires more than $1 million, said Bowser, the Oregon-based political consultant.
Thirteen were withdrawn, four were denied by the state’s title-setting board and others are awaiting a hearing before the state supreme court. An initiative that would change the state’s criminal code to define an unborn child as a person, known as the Brady Amendment 67, qualified for the ballot after turning in enough valid signatures last year.
A battle over limits on a drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced down a well to crack rock and release gas and oil, could make the ballot and would be especially costly, said Eric Sondermann, a Denver-based independent political consultant.
“I don’t know that any more than a half-dozen or 10 will end up on the ballot,” Sondermann said. “The fracking fight will break all records for political spending in Colorado -- it won’t just break them, it will shatter them.”
The ballot initiative process allows for little debate, except through 30-second television ads, and was intended originally to combat abuse in government and not as a way to legislate, said Lamm, who was governor from 1975 to 1987.
“It’s become a public policy nightmare and it’s now an established way of doing things,” Lamm said. “You can say, ‘Well, shouldn’t the citizens set priorities?’ It’s hard to argue against that, except that’s what you call representative government.”
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