Legislative inaction & dissatisfaction lead to more issues going directly to voters in ballot initiatives

Recent polls
show Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with their system of
representative democracy, in which they choose candidates to represent
their interests once in office.

When available, voters have bypassed their elected representatives and enacted laws by using direct democracy tools such as ballot initiatives and veto referendums.
Ballot initiatives allow citizens or legislatures to propose policies
for voter approval, while veto referendums permit challenges to
legislative action.

The number of initiatives and veto referendums proposed nationally has been fairly stable over the past two decades. Over the past five years,
however, lawmakers have increasingly adopted measures making it harder
to get these initiatives and referendums on the ballot.

Citizen-led ballot measures in recent years have been used in various states to expand Medicaid, preserve abortion rights and raise minimum wages. The most common topic for veto referendums over the years has been taxation.

America’s founders were wary of direct democracy and what they felt was the risk of the tyranny of the majority,
a situation wherein the majority places its own interests above the
interests of a minority. Scholars have found that these direct democracy
tools have disproportionately been used to promote conservative policies over progressive ones. They also note the potential threats direct democracy poses to democratic rights.

There is growing evidence, however, that these direct democracy tools are increasingly being used in a more broadly representative manner.
And these measures often address a variety of progressive policies.
Arizona, my home state, provides an interesting case study.

Mostly Western states

The citizen initiative and veto referendum process varies by state.
In general, citizens collect signatures to have an issue placed directly
on the ballot for the voters to decide.

Just half the states allow citizens to directly engage in this kind of policymaking. Twenty-four states allow some form of initiative, and 26 allow for referendums. The majority of these states allow both the initiative and veto referendum.

Most states that equip their citizens with direct democracy tools are
in the West. About 60% of all initiative activity occurs in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington. The states with the most veto referendums are North Dakota, Oregon and California.

Initially, Eastern and Southern states
left out these direct democracy tools from their state constitutions
primarily out of fear that direct democracy would empower Black people
and immigrants.

Direct democracy tools found fertile ground in the Midwest and West during the populist and progressive movements
of the late 19th century. As these territories became states, they
often built these instruments into their state constitutions.

A total of 2,536 citizen initiative measures advanced in the 24 states that allow them from 2000 to 2023, with 1,631, or approximately two-thirds passing.

Defaulting to direct democracy

Two trends are reshaping the use of initiatives and referendums.

The first is the continued partisan polarization in the U.S. and voters’ frustration with the two-party system and the parties themselves.

Most Americans want their elected officials to compromise on important public policy issues,
but the two major parties are increasingly embracing an uncompromising
mindset that undermines their ability to address important public
issues. I explore this in the book I co-authored with colleagues Jacqueline Salit and Omar Ali, “The Independent Voter.”

Second, many states are now controlled by one party. Forty states are currently under trifecta partisan control
– where one party dominates the governor’s office, House and Senate. By
population, only 17.4% of Americans are living in states with divided
state government.

When elected officials are unwilling or unable to compromise, and the
majority of U.S. citizens are living in states where there is
consolidated control of government by a major party, important problems
can go unaddressed.

‘Essential to a truly functioning democracy’

The history of direct democracy tools in Arizona, where I live,
provides an interesting example of how these tools have been used in a
broadly representative manner.

In preparation for becoming a state, the framers of Arizona’s Constitution
in 1910 wanted legislators to be the primary method of making laws, but
they were concerned that legislators might not act on key issues. They
viewed the initiative and referendum as essential parts of a functioning
democracy, in which citizens could get around legislative inaction.

During Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910, the Los Angeles Express
newspaper urged its neighbor to push for direct democracy: “Let not
Arizona be deterred from its purposes by menaces of the reactionaries or
threats from such errant boys of big business… Let it write the
initiative, the referendum, direct primaries, and the recall into the
constitution and arm its people forever with the power of complete

Ballot initiatives have been used by every kind of group for all
kinds of purposes in the state. They have been passed both to increase
and to curb public spending. Measures approved by voters have opposed affirmative action and immigrants’ access to state and local funds.

Other ballot measures
increased the minimum wage, established a redistricting commission to
combat gerrymandering and allowed the use of medical and recreational

In 2024, initiatives likely to appear on the ballot include measures to expand abortion access and mandate open primaries.

While many state legislative bodies have been overturning or altering voter initiatives, citizens in Arizona prevented this from taking place.

Arizonans passed a unique voter-initiated constitutional amendment in 1998 known as the Voter Protection Act. It prohibits a governor’s veto or legislative repeal of any voter-passed initiative.

The procedures to put such initiatives and referendums to vote,
however, are still largely controlled by the state Legislature. Arizona
lawmakers have been successful passing legislation
leading to a significant increase in rejected signatures. Because a
certain number of signatures are required to get an initiative or
referendum on the ballot, such legislation makes it harder to do that.

Direct democracy tools such as the ballot initiative and veto
referendum have provided Arizonans with important alternatives to
enacting public policy when elected representatives failed to do so. And
these measures are being used to address a range of public policy
issues, both conservative and liberal. Arizona can serve as a role model
for how direct democracy can work for the rest of the states.