Harnessing the power of 'we the people' on Independence Day
Spinelle is the communications specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and host of the podcasts “When the People Decide” and “Democracy Works.”
Democracy does not have a singular definition, which is one of the things that makes it so interesting to me — and undoubtedly to many of you.
I don’t have a Ph.D. in political science, but I have done nearly hundreds of interviews with people about democracy in some form or another. During that time, I developed a working definition: Democracy is about the allocation of power among people. Yes, there are norms, institutions and processes. But power is at the heart of it all.
Ballot initiatives are one way for citizens in more than 20 states to harness that power. In my new podcast series, “When the People Decide,” I explore how people have used the ballot initiative to bring issues they care deeply about directly to their fellow voters and push for political change on their own terms.
Citizen-led initiatives are not perfect. The process is cumbersome and confusing, and is often initiated or taken over by moneyed interests, leaving the public interest in the dust. But despite their flaws and shortcomings, I’m still bullish.
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Initiatives offer the chance for regular people to break through the gridlock that plagues so much of politics and to deliver solutions. They can help us fix what’s broken in American democracy and create meaningful political reform
In the past decade, initiatives have been used to legalize marijuana, expand access to Medicaid, raise the minimum wage, restore voting rights, implement ranked-choice voting and open primaries, among many other reforms. Often, these wins come in places you wouldn’t expect — traditionally “red” states like Idaho, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
If organizations like the Fairness Project and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center have anything to do with it, ballot initiatives will be an even bigger part of American democracy in the future. These organizations are helping citizens advance their ballot measure campaigns and working to defend the initiative process itself.
As you might imagine, state legislatures are not pleased when people go around them, especially when it’s to pass “progressive” issues. So, what do they do? They try to make it more difficult for citizens to use the initiative process by increasing signature requirements or changing the vote threshold from a simple majority to a supermajority.
This story is starting to receive national attention thanks to an investment from Democracy Docket in the Ballot Measure Rescue Campaign, and last month South Dakota voters rejected an effort by the legislature to amend the state’s Constitution in a way that would limit the ballot initiative.
Not only do ballot measures lead to meaningful policy change and democracy reform, but they can also create new political coalitions among organizers and volunteers who come together to support a shared interest. I heard this sentiment over and over again from the people interviewed, from people working for LGBTQ rights in Cincinnati to ending closed adoptions in Oregon.
There’s a lot of talk these days about finding common ground in politics, but after reporting this series, I think that finding common cause is the real key to breaking through the gridlock.
It’s one thing to fire off an angry social media post about how the system is broken or politicians are corrupt. But it’s something else entirely to decide to do something about it. That’s what our founders did nearly 250 years ago, and that’s what modern-day organizers across the country continue to do, something well worth remembering as we celebrate Independence Day.
Ballot initiatives offer a way to move beyond the stasis that can sometimes bog down politics and lead to resentment and frustration. Again, let me be clear that they’re not perfect, but they do represent a path forward and a bit of optimism in a political landscape that can seem pretty gloomy at times.
There are so many more stories I could tell, and perhaps will, about what happens when people decide to take an active role in our democracy. If you have ideas for people or campaigns to feature, I would love to hear them!
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