Ballot initiatives are an essential evolution of American democracy. Created over a century ago, they give millions of Americans a direct means to shape the laws that govern their lives and a check on legislative power when it’s not responsive to the people. In recent months, though, conservative politicians’ efforts to undermine the ballot process have taken a disturbing shift. Beyond their continued attempts to impose supermajority voter thresholds to make passing such initiatives nearly impossible, they have also resorted to manipulating ballot titles to deliberately confuse voters. The 2023 elections are a testing ground for this insidious tactic. Unless met head-on, it will spread like wildfire in 2024.
The ballot title is a concise summary intended to accurately convey the gist of a proposed law or measure. For many voters, this title is the only information they see before casting their ballots. As a result, the title needs to be accurate, concise and impartial. Research has shown that the change in ballot language dramatically impacts the support of initiative.
The effort to protect the initiative process is far from over.
States differ in laws governing whether the ballot title is determined before signatures are collected or after. In some states, the government determines the ballot title before signatures are collected, without the direct input of the citizens who initiated the petition. This happens in states like Arizona, Michigan and Nebraska, and further highlights the importance of ensuring that the government’s role in determining the ballot title is transparent and impartial.
Roughly two-thirds of states with ballot initiatives, including California, Massachusetts, Missouri and Ohio, use ballot titles that rely on language within the petition. This approach ensures continuity and fairness, as the language in the petition was shared during voter outreach. But while a fundamental aspect of direct democracy is preserved, this method remains vulnerable to manipulation by disingenuous politicians.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and the success of stopping abortion bans and protecting reproductive rights at the ballot box, attacks on the initiative process have escalated. Conservative politicians recognize the combined strength of the reproductive freedom movement alongside ballot initiatives’ potential to advance policies that resonate across party lines.
Over the summer, Ohio took center stage in this fight. The Republican-controlled Legislature proposed State Issue 1, which would have unreasonably increased signature requirements and raised the voter threshold for approving future initiatives to 60%. Had it passed, the measure would have made citizen-led initiatives infinitely more costly and difficult to get on the ballot, let alone pass. Ohio Republicans spent approximately $20 million to place the measure in an August special election, hoping low voter turnout would let it sneak to passage. Instead, over 3 million ballots were cast, and State Issue 1 was irrefutably defeated, demonstrating Ohioans’ dedication to preserving direct democracy.
Undeterred, Ohio Republicans then manipulated the title of a pro-abortion measure on the ballot on Tuesday, including removing the language of fetal viability. After Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights launched a lawsuit against the Republican-controlled state Ballot Board, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled that one element of the disputed ballot language was misleading and must be rewritten. While most of the word choices targeted in the lawsuit remained unchanged and deliberately deceiving, without the people’s intervention, it could have been worse.
The effort to protect the initiative process is far from over. Conservatives in Idaho and Florida have made similar attempts to implement inaccurate ballot titles. In Missouri, the appeals court is set to hear arguments after a county judge rewrote the ballot language for six proposed initiatives. And the Missouri State House approved a 57% threshold in the closing days of this year’s session in May. Though that effort died in the state Senate, conservative state representatives are pressuring legislative leadership to act in the face of a possible reproductive rights initiative.
The fight to protect the initiative process is a battle of voters being able to have their voices heard.
Even when we are successful in thwarting these efforts, we must stay prepared for these attacks to continue ahead of the 2024 election. Fortunately, voters in states like Arkansas, Ohio, Idaho and Missouri are fighting these calculated tactics, safeguarding the integrity of the initiative process and the will of the people. The resistance that’s developed across the country, including in deep red states, shows that people and lawmakers are willing to stand up against tactics that erode our fundamental democratic rights.
After facing ongoing, calculated attacks, one thing is certain — the fight to protect the initiative process is a battle of voters being able to have their voices heard. Next year, we are likely to see ballot initiatives address issues like abortion rights in Florida, paid sick leave in Nebraska and redistricting in Ohio. The deliberate manipulation of ballot titles is a brazen attempt to confuse voters, deny their right to representation and erode the people’s trust in the initiative process. If biased and inaccurate ballot titles become standard, conservative leaders will be able to further undermine the initiative process and consolidate their power.
Despite these mounting efforts to erode direct democracy, voters continue to show up, to vote, to protect this initiative process. But we must never take this for granted. So much is at stake for the future of democracy. Only proactive defense of ballot initiatives can ensure that the will of the people prevails.