For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company ruled California. Known as “the Octopus” by those who feared it, its tentacles extended across 14,000 miles of track and expertly guided the hands of the state’s political leaders.
It helped that Leland Stanford, California’s eighth governor, was a railman, having invested in the incipient Central Pacific Railroad. After leaving office, Stanford acquired Southern Pacific with his partners, bringing Central under its umbrella and serving as president of both. Over the course of its reign, the railroad’s sweeping influence won it 11.6 million acres of federal land grants (helping it cover more than 10 percent of the state); and almost $60 million in railroad bonds.
That’s until around 1910, when Hiram Johnson, a progressive firebrand, ran for the state’s highest office on a promise to break up corporate collusion—and, in turn, free California from the Octopus’ control. After winning, Johnson honored his word. He introduced a new legislative tool to give California voters an unprecedented level of direct democracy: the ballot initiative.
Instead of relying on politicians alone, who were susceptible to the railroad’s charms, ballot measures meant Californians were able to weigh in on specific legislative priorities, like eliminating a poll tax and increasing university funding. It was true populism: belief in the rights of the people. For the first time, voters “had an opportunity to pass policies rather than having companies take control of their politicians,” says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, that advocates for progressive ballot measures today.
California wasn’t the first state to introduce the ballot initiative—Nebraska started allowing local measures in 1897, and South Dakota followed with statewide measures in 1898. But in the century since Johnson popularized the tool, ballot initiatives have become legal in more than half of U.S. states. Starting in 2006, they waned in popularity, says Josh Altic, who tracks ballot initiative activity for election database Ballotpedia. But by the 2016 election, there was a turnaround, with a record-breaking 162 making state ballots across the country. In November’s midterms, at least 155 appeared in 37 states.
As they’ve become more commonplace, those on the right have begun to use ballot measures just as strategically as the left. It was a ballot initiative that, in 1978, capped property taxes in California, making it harder to fund schools and public services even today. It was another California measure that, in 1994, denied illegal immigrants access to public benefits (and therefore education). In 20 other states, voters banned same-sex marriage via ballot measures during George W. Bush’s presidency.
And both parties have bristled as initiatives have drifted farther from their local and anti-establishment roots. “It’s hard to get one of these measures on the ballot if you don’t have some sort of national interest or group—or at least a wealthy backer—supporting you,” said Altic. “In 2016 … there was a lot of corporate activity and a lot of out-of-state money involved.”
This year, out-of-state interests were no less central to the process. But, in a return to the ballot measure’s corporate trust-busting origins, the proposals again advanced an overwhelmingly progressive agenda. Voters in three conservative-leaning states said yes to Medicaid expansion and raised the minimum wage in two others. Florida restored voting rights to ex-felons. Michigan, Colorado, and Missouri passed redistricting reform that will make partisan gerrymandering harder.
“Thinking about the birth to where we are now, it’s sort of come full circle,” Figueredo said. “Politicians aren’t listening to the will of the people … so the people again are rising up and using this tool.”
The initiatives’ leftward lean was especially pronounced when examined in contrast with the makeup of the incoming federal legislature: While the House flipped for the Democrats, Republicans maintained control of the Senate; and while the split of state majority parties got closer to parity, state leadership stayed mostly red.
That discrepancy isn’t a fluke, says Scott LaCombe, a PhD student at University of Iowa who is writing a dissertation on the subject: Ballot initiatives have historically counterbalanced the actions of the states in which they’re passed. “What these initiatives do is that they provide a way for people to influence policy in places that they’re out of power,” he said. Gay marriage bans were passed even in states with deep blue legislatures at the turn of the century; and Florida’s ex-felon re-enfranchisement act will take effect even as a Republican governor is sworn in. “Ballot initiatives are a way to hold the state in line with public opinion,” LaCombe continued.
Indeed, part of ballot measures’ power is that they reflect the will of the majority perhaps even better than elected officials do. The popular vote doesn’t win the presidency—we have the electoral college to thank for that—but it can win most state-wide measures. And while partisan gerrymandering can swing a house vote by chopping up districts, all voters in every district state-wide have equal say in deciding ballot measures.
“The fact that … you’re not constrained by the artifacts and the limitations of gerrymandering is one reason why we are able to pass these initiatives in red states,” said Jonathan Schleifer, the executive director of The Fairness Project, a progressive lobbying group that fought for the minimum-wage hikes.
“That’s also why there’s a backlash that makes it harder to put initiatives on the ballot,” he continued. In Florida, for example, they raised the threshold for initiative passage to 60 percent of the vote in 2006, while many other states require only a simple majority. Other states have put strict minimums on the number of signatures needed for putting citizen-initiated measures on the ballot; or have made it easier to repeal them once they’re passed. Not all pushback is an attempt to invalidate majority rule: Critics note that ballot measures, especially those that are citizen-initiated, can be damaging when poorly designed. Still, Schleifer says that absent federal action, ballot measures are the best way to increase the wages and benefits of working people. “Opponents know that when you put these policies in front of voters, they win,” he said.
To that end, ballot measures have also been used to galvanize turnout. Republicans used gay marriage-related ballot measures to get their party to the polls, in the hopes they’d vote for Bush’s reelection in 2004; when he won, it seemed to confirm the strategy’s value. And studies have shown that states with an initiative process do garner greater voter participation, especially in midterm years. This November’s midterm added another data point to the trend. “The thing I saw this year is people … saw their role in our democracy in a way I haven’t seen in my 15-plus years of doing this work,” said Figueredo. “Voters aren’t waiting for politicians anymore,” said Schleifer.
And when certain ballot measures succeed, they’re even more likely to have long-term ramifications on turnout. In a paper published this year, Jake Haselswerdt, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri, found that states that passed Medicaid expansion saw a direct effect on increased turnout and voter registration in the next election year. Haselswerdt did not study the voter impact of minimum-wage increases specifically, but says that helping workers earn more would likely have a similar effect to Medicaid expansion.
“If your life is unstable, or if you’re living in crisis, you’re less likely to vote,” Haselswerdt said. It follows that policies that help bring stability—like those that keep you healthy, and financially secure—equip voters with the resources to show up to the polls.
Schleifer said the results of this election also signal a bit of a breakdown in the traditional definition of who cares about “progressive” legislation. The fight for expanded health care benefit has come to be associated with the Democratic party in recent years (especially as Republicans fight to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and Democrats make it a campaign centerpiece); and candidates who are pro-minimum wage, pro-voting rights, and anti-gerrymandering are overwhelmingly blue. But ballot measures are unique in that there’s no clear signal telling voters what party each issue is aligned with, said LaCombe, so voters can be more comfortable splitting their tickets. “The elections have become more nationalized and polarized,” he said. “But the initiatives are state-specific.”
Voters didn’t support all of the so-called progressive measures on the ballot this year: In Arizona, Colorado, and Washington state, voters rejected environmental protection policies like carbon fees and drilling restrictions. But Republican voters did approve labor and healthcare reform.
“What is surprising a little bit is the extent to which we see the same voters voting for relatively progressive policies supporting conservative candidates,” said LaCombe. That may signal that the association between liberal reform and liberals isn’t so simple. Nebraska Republicans voted for Medicaid expansion along with a full Republican ticket of House and Senate representatives. These may be the blue-collar voters that make up Trump’s core base: conservative on social issues, but willing to raise a working-class minimum wage.
“I think passing progressive ballot measures will send a clear signal that the way to win is focusing on the two pain points of working people,” said Schleifer. “A Republican can embrace a minimum wage and expanding Medicaid.” And in the states where those policies won—Arkansas, Missouri, Idaho, Nebraska and Utah—they might be wise to do so.
As state leadership becomes more unified—only Minnesota has a house and senate controlled by different parties—there are more people than ever out of power, whether Democrats in Republican states or vice-versa. To pass policies that work for them, LaCombe says, the most viable path forward may be the ballot initiative.