Skip to content

Latest Stories

Top Stories

​2023 ballot initiatives show value of policy polls for legislators

Sign supporting reproductive rights ballot measure in Vermont

Polling on abortion-related ballot measures has generally lined up with voting results in recent years.

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Lewitus is a research analyst at the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation.

The reputation of election polls has taken a hard hit in the last several years due to some major mis-calls of close races. Some people have questioned polls on public policy as well. But the results of ballot initiatives over the last decade, including those just passed in Ohio and Maine, have been consistently in line with the polls.

This confirms that policy polls can and should be an important tool for policymakers to use in a well-functioning democracy. That is, of course, only if legislators pay attention to them and value the will of the majority over their own wishes, which some lawmakers have been reluctant to do.

The Ohio ballot measure to enshrine into the state Constitution the legality of abortions, up until fetal viability, passed with 57 percent of voters’ support. A poll of Ohio voters conducted one month before the vote found 58 percent support for the ballot measure. A national survey conducted in 2022 by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation found that 57 percent opposed criminalizing abortion, including 52 percent in very red congressional districts. Other surveys in 2022 found that 61 percent believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 64 percent opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

The level of support for abortion rights found in polls matches up to outcomes in five other ballot measures last year, when adjusted to match each state’s partisan and demographic makeup.

Even for an issue that has not been nearly as salient or polled-on as abortion, such as the campaign finance reform initiative in Maine, polling has proved accurate. Eighty-six percent of voters in Maine supported prohibiting foreign spending to influence ballot measures and candidate elections. A 2022 survey by PPC found roughly the same level of support nationwide (79 percent), with little variation between very red and very blue districts.

On numerous other issues, polling has been congruent with ballot results. Polls have shown consistent majority support for term limits, decriminalizing marijuana and increasing the minimum wage. All ballot measures on those policy proposals over the last decade have passed.

Policy polls are not only just as accurate as ballot initiatives in revealing public opinion, but they are far more cost-efficient. The average cost of getting a measure on the ballot is $4 million, and then there are the administrative costs for the government, as well as the millions of dollars spent by groups trying to influence the outcome.

Legislators may believe that national polling is not indicative of public opinion in their area because their constituents are particularly unique. However, public opinion research has shown that this is very unlikely. PPC analyzed dozens of large-sample surveys and found the differences between very red and very blue congressional districts is much less than policymakers imagine. When support for a position was 60 percent or more nationally, there was always majority support in both very red and very blue districts.

For many issues, however, standard polling may be inadequate. Citizens often do not have enough information to make an informed decision, or the proposed policy may be too detailed or nuanced to accurately describe in a standard poll. Fortunately, there are forms of “public consultation” that give representative samples of citizens the information and range of arguments necessary to understand the issue. Public consultation surveys do this in an online format, which is inexpensive and fully transparent. Events like citizen assemblies are also a well-tested option, as are deliberative polls and myriad other methods used in democracies across the world.

What is striking is that on many issues these public consultation methods reveal a striking amount of bipartisan common ground, far more than legislatures tend to find. Voice of the People has identified more than 200 bipartisan common ground positions on a wide range of policy positions that divide Congress on partisan lines. When the parties are polarized, the people may offer a path forward.

Ballot initiatives have proven to be a good way to give the people a voice. But if legislatures were really doing their job, they may not be as necessary. When an abundance of polling exists, legislators should be listening. Where sufficient polling does not exist, the government could commission nonpartisan policy polls, especially public-consultation-style surveys that ensure citizens have correct information.

In numerous polls, the American public has complained that government does not listen to and is not responsive to the people, undermining confidence in the democratic process. This lack of responsiveness by elected officials has been on full display across the country, with state policymakers attempting to block and prevent ballot initiatives. Most recently in Ohio, several legislators are attempting to over-rule the results of the ballot measure on abortion.

The public is not asking that elected officials simply follow the polls in a robotic fashion, but they do insist that elected officials listen to the people and value their opinion. And if they do not, the public will continue to rise up and use direct democratic approaches, such as ballot initiatives, to be heard.

Read More

Blurred image of an orchestra
Melpomenem/Getty Images

The ideal democracy: An orchestra in harmony

Frazier is an assistant professor at the Crump College of Law at St. Thomas University. Starting this summer, he will serve as a Tarbell fellow.

In the symphony of our democracy, we can find a compelling analogy with an orchestra. The interplay of musicians trained in different instruments, each contributing to the grand musical tapestry, offers lessons for our democratic system. As we navigate the complexities of governance, let us draw inspiration from the orchestra's structure, dynamics and philosophy.

Keep ReadingShow less
David French

New York Times columnist David French was removed from the agenda of a faith-basd gathering because we was too "divisive."

Macmillan Publishers

Is canceling David French good for civic life?

Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute. This is the latest entry in his series based on the "Enough. Time to Build.” campaign, which calls on community leaders and active citizens to step forward and build together.

On June 10-14, the Presbyterian Church in America held its annual denominational assembly in Richmond, Va. The PCA created considerable national buzz in the lead-up when it abruptly canceled a panel discussion featuring David French, the highly regarded author and New York Times columnist.

The panel carried the innocuous-sounding title, “How to Be Supportive of Your Pastor and Church Leaders in a Polarized Political Year.” The reason for canceling it? French, himself a long-time PCA member, was deemed too “divisive.” This despite being a well-known, self-identified “conservative” and PCA adherent. Ironically, the loudest and most divisive voices won the day.

Keep ReadingShow less
Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer testifies at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

Bettmann/Getty Images

60 years later, it's time to restart the Freedom Summer

Johnson is a United Methodist pastor, the author of "Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community" and program director for the Bridge Alliance, which houses The Fulcrum.

Sixty years have passed since Freedom Summer, that pivotal season of 1964 when hundreds of young activists descended upon an unforgiving landscape, driven by a fierce determination to shatter the chains of racial oppression. As our nation teeters on the precipice of another transformative moment, the echoes of that fateful summer reverberate across the years, reminding us that freedom remains an unfinished work.

At the heart of this struggle stood Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper's daughter whose voice thundered like a prophet's in the wilderness, signaling injustice. Her story is one of unyielding defiance, of a spirit that the brutal lash of bigotry could not break. When Hamer testified before the Democratic National Convention in 1964, her words, laced with the pain of beatings and the fire of righteous indignation, laid bare the festering wound of racial terror that had long plagued our nation. Her resilience in the face of such adversity is a testament to the power of the human spirit.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kamala Harris waiving as she exits an airplane

If President Joe Biden steps aside and endorses Vice President Kamala Harris, her position could be strengthened by a ranked-choice vote among convention delegates.

Anadolu/Getty Images

How best to prepare for a brokered convention

Richie is co-founder and senior advisor of FairVote.

As the political world hangs on whether Joe Biden continues his presidential campaign, an obvious question is how the Democratic Party might pick a new nominee. Its options are limited, given the primary season is long past and the Aug. 19 convention is only weeks away. But they are worth getting right for this year and future presidential cycles.

Suppose Biden endorses Vice President Kamala Harris and asks his delegates to follow his lead. She’s vetted, has close relationships across the party, and could inherit the Biden-Harris campaign and its cash reserves without a hitch. As Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) suggested, however, Harris would benefit from a mini-primary among delegates before the convention – either concluding at the virtual roll call that is already planned or at the in-person convention.

Keep ReadingShow less