The GOP is escalating the fight against citizen-led ballot initiatives

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions this year supporting proposed ballot initiatives to expand voting access, protect abortion rights and legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona, Arkansas and Michigan.

But voters may not have a say because Republican officials or judges have blocked the proposals since the November election, citing incorrect wording, procedural weaknesses or insufficient petition signatures.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and Arizona have placed constitutional amendments on the ballot proposing to make it more difficult to pass citizens’ initiatives in the future.

The Republican pushback against the initiative process is part of a years-long trend that has intensified as Democratic-aligned groups increasingly use petitions to force public votes on issues that Republican-led legislatures have opposed. In reliably Republican Missouri, for example, voters have approved initiatives to expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana. An initiative seeking to allow recreational pot is facing a court challenge from an anti-drug activist who aims to knock it off the November ballot.

Some Democrats argue that Republicans are subverting the will of the people by making the ballot initiative process more difficult.

“What’s happening now is just a web of technicalities to block the process in states where voters use the people’s tool to make an immediate positive change in their lives,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Strategy Center. Ballot initiative. which has partnered with progressive groups sponsoring the blocked initiatives.

“This is not the way our democracy should work,” he added

Republicans who have blocked initiative petitions claim they are protecting the integrity of the legislative process against well-funded interest groups trying to bend state policies in their favor.

“I think the Legislature is a much cleaner way of doing things and represents the people a lot better, instead of having this jungle where you just throw it on the ballot,” said South Dakota State Representative Tim Goodwin. who is constantly aiming. the limited initiative process.

About half the states allow citizen initiatives, in which petition signers can bypass a legislature to put proposed laws or constitutional changes directly to voters. However, executive or judicial officials often still play some role in the process, usually certifying that the wording of the ballot is clear and accurate and that the petition circulators collected enough valid signatures of registered voters.

In Michigan last week, two Republican members of the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers blocked initiatives to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and expand voting opportunities. Each measure had significantly more than the required 425,000 signatures. But GOP board members said the ballot measure was vaguely worded and the abortion measure was flawed because of spacing issues linking some words together.

Supporters appealed both rulings to the Michigan Supreme Court, which is made up of a majority of justices appointed by Democrats.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, whose justices run for nonpartisan elections, is considering an appeal of an August ruling blocking an initiative that would have legalized adult recreational marijuana.

The state board of election commissioners, which has only one Democrat among its many Republicans, ruled the ballot title misleading because it did not say it would repeal limits on an existing medical marijuana provision. Because the deadline to certify initiative titles has passed, the Supreme Court has allowed the measure on the general election ballot while it decides whether the votes will be counted.

A lawsuit by initiative supporters argues that a 2019 law passed by the Republican-led Legislature violates the Arkansas Constitution by allowing the board to reject ballot titles.

“The (initiative) process in Arkansas gets steadily more difficult each cycle as the Legislature adds more and more requirements,” said Steve Lancaster, an attorney for Responsible Growth Arkansas, which supports the marijuana amendment.

It would become even more difficult if voters supported a legislatively-referred amendment on the November ballot that would require a 60 percent vote to approve citizen-initiated ballot measures or future constitutional amendments.

In Arizona, the mostly Republican-appointed Supreme Court recently blocked a proposed constitutional amendment that would have expanded early voting and limited lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The measure would also specifically bar the legislature from overturning presidential election results, which some Republicans had explored after then-President Donald Trump lost in 2020.

After a lower court initially ruled the measure could appear on the November ballot, the Arizona Supreme Court ordered the judge to reconsider. He then upheld a later ruling throwing in enough petition signatures to prevent the initiative from qualifying for the ballot.

Still on the ballot are several other amendments listed by the Republican-led Arizona Legislature. Those measures would limit initiatives to a single issue, require a 60 percent supermajority to pass tax proposals, and expand the Legislature’s power to change initiatives approved by voters.

Those proposals come after Arizona Republicans have spent the past decade passing laws that make it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. State laws now require report sheets to be accurately printed and prohibit the use of a copy machine to create new ones. Other laws require paid circulators to include their registration number on each report sheet, validate it, and check a box that says they’ve been paid.

“The effect is to make it much more difficult, much more expensive to get the signatures to put one of these propositions on the ballot,” said Terry Goddard, a Democrat who served as the state’s attorney general from 2003 to 2011. .

After years of trying, Goddard finally managed to get an initiative on the ballot this year that would have required nonprofit groups that spend big on elections to disclose their donors.

Earlier this summer, South Dakota voters rejected a measure that would have made it more difficult to pass tax-and-spend initiatives. The proposal from the Republican-led legislature would require a 60 percent vote to raise taxes or spend above a certain amount of money. Voters rejected the measure by 67%.

“This just seems like a way of suppressing voters. frankly,” Joshua Matzner, a Democrat, said after voting against it.

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Associated Press writers Bob Christie in Phoenix and Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, contributed to this report.

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