It took about 45,000 Washington, D.C., voters to pass a ballot initiative this June raising the minimum wage for tipped workers. It took only eight city council members out of 13 (and a ton of public pressure) to begin the process of repealing it only a few months later. This wasn’t a bug in democracy. In D.C., and many cities and states across the U.S., it’s part of democracy’s design.
Citizen-initiated ballot measures like Initiative 77, whose short life flamed out dramatically in D.C. this year, give citizens a voice in deciding real policy matters at both the state and local levels. Recent ones have addressed everything from raising minimum wages, to extending term limits, to legalizing cannabis. And in the past two election cycles, there’s been a pronounced increase in activity: 2016 saw the highest number of citizen-initiated measures on ballots in a decade (76); and the 2018 cycle seems to be continuing the trend—69 of the 154 statewide measures on the ballot this year are citizen-initiated, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. But there’s been an equal and opposite response from lawmakers who are able to use their legislative power to limit, block, or reverse the votes, both preemptively, and after the fact.