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Ballot measures on weed and abortion won in 2022. Now they're fueling a backlash

Updated December 17, 2022 at 5:18 PM ET

In 2022, voters expanded Medicaid in South Dakota, legalized recreational marijuana in Missouri, and enshrined the right to an abortion in Michigan.

This was possible because in about half of all U.S. states, citizens have the power to pass laws or amend the state's constitution themselves, sidestepping lawmakers. Such ballot initiatives have become a popular tactic to change policy in states dominated by one party, often the GOP.

That's led to pushback from state lawmakers.

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That backlash "really accelerated in 2021 and 2022," says Kelly Hall, executive director with The Fairness Project. That group claims success in 31 of the 33 left-leaning ballot initiatives it has supported since 2016.

At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of bills to tweak the initiative process, from 33 in 2017 to more than a 100 in 2021 and 2022, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a group which provides research and support to groups promoting ballot measures.

While not all would restrict the process, many propose new requirements for the number of signatures needed, where the signatures must come from, or increase the threshold to pass a measure.

Some are simply cumbersome, like "requiring the language to be printed all on one sheet of paper, meaning you have to carry around a bath towel-size petition," Hall says. While not impossible to follow, these new rules add up to "death by a thousand cuts" for future initiatives, she says.

This year, lawmakers in three states succeeded in getting some of these restrictions on the ballot, asking voters to decide.

Arkansas and South Dakota voters rejected the limits, but Arizonans approved two out of three. They rejected a measure that would have allowed legislators amend or repeal ballot measures found to contain illegal language. But they approved a measure to increase the vote threshold to pass initiatives, including constitutional amendments, or referendums to 60% if they raise taxes, and another limiting initiatives to one subject.

In November, Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose announced a plan to raise the threshold for voters to approve a constitutional amendment to 60%.
Andy Chow / Ohio Public Radio
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Ohio Public Radio
In November, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced a plan to raise the threshold for voters to approve a constitutional amendment to 60%.

Republican state lawmakers say such ballot initiatives are too easy

Just weeks after the November election, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, and Republican Rep. Brian Stewart rolled out a resolution that would require all future constitutional amendments to receive a 60% supermajority at the polls, rather than the current 50%.

"This is about trying to make the Ohio constitution less susceptible to special interests," LaRose said.

This comes as advocates for abortion rights, legal marijuana use and redistricting reform are all gearing up to put their issue on the ballot in Ohio in 2023 or 2024.

Since 2018 voters in Missouri approved ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage from $7.85 to $12 over five years, expand Medicaid, and legalize marijuana. In 2022, Missouri lawmakers responded by introducing more bills to restrict constitutional amendments than any other state.

"I think the recent passage of recreational marijuana, which you know I oppose, maybe indicates it's a little too easy to get things through initiative petition," says Missouri's new Republican state Senate majority leader, Cindy O'Laughlin.

On average, fewer than half of all citizen-initiated measures pass, according to Ballotpedia. But targeted campaigns in support of economic or social issues that are popular with a majority of voters have had success even in conservative states.

Advocates for direct democracy say lawmakers are simply out of sync with their own constituents.

"What's clear here is that this is an effort to block the people of Ohio's ability to amend our constitution and to ensure that we can enshrine rights and protections for the people that obviously Ohio Republicans don't want us to have," says Katy Shanahan with the Equal Districts Coalition, a group that opposes partisan gerrymandering in Ohio.

Expect more fights over ballot measures in 2023 and 2024

In the coming election cycles, reproductive rights groups say they are looking into initiatives in at least 10 states where abortion is currently banned or heavily restricted.

In 2022, voters affirmed the right to an abortion or rejected restrictions to it in every state where it was on the ballot. That included states such as Kentucky and Kansas where Republicans control the legislature.

"While an issue may be couched as partisan, when we actually put them before voters, they transcend those party lines," says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Changes to the process could make future wins less likely. The tallies in some of those votes fell short of the 60% threshold many Republican lawmakers are now seeking for constitutional amendments.

In December, GOP lawmakers in Ohio failed to pass the resolution to raise the vote threshold for constitutional amendments before the end of the lame duck session. But they say they'll try again in 2023.

Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate on a temporary basis for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.
Andy Chow
Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.