The irony seems obvious: One consequence of the burst in voter participation this year is that it will be tougher for those same voters to participate next time.
Half the states give their people a shot at putting proposals to a statewide vote, the sort of citizen-driven democracy that many good-government voices say should be much closer to the rule than the exception. In 10 of those states, which are home to about one in six Americans, the petition signature minimums for getting referendums on the ballot are tied to recent turnout and registration numbers.
No surprise after an election when the highest share of eligible people voted in more than a century, the 2020 figures went up in all 10 states. But here's the surprise for those unfamiliar with the legal quirk: Millions more people will need to sign on to proposed plebiscites starting next year or else the measures won't be considered.
These so-called direct democracy measures amounted to one-third of the 129 ballot initiatives put to a vote across 34 states in November. (The rest get placed on the ballot by legislatures.) The number was much lower than at any other time in the past decade — according to a new report from Ballotpedia, a digital encyclopedia of American elections — almost surely a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. Only 5 percent of campaigns to gather signatures succeeded, in part because more than two dozen were abandoned in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak.
But the proposals from the public that did get considered generated $935 million in donations and campaign spending, by Ballotpedia's estimate, almost four-fifths of all the money raised and spent on 2020 ballot measures.
While taxes was the most popular topic, with 26 measures overall, proposals to change campaign finance rules, redistricting authority or other election rules was second at 18.
Looking forward, the threshold for future citizen-initiated ideas will grow most dramatically in Nevada — 44 percent.
That's because the state's complex law factors the previous two elections, not just one. Turnout in the fast-growing state soared in 2018 thanks to highly competitive contests for governor and the Senate, then rose significantly again this fall after the presidential battleground responded to the coronavirus pandemic by sending every active registered voter a mail-in ballot.
At the same time, however, the spread of Covid-19 crushed prospects for one of the year's premier ballot measures, which would have created an independent commission to draw Nevada's congressional and legislative boundaries in time for the nationwide redistricting that starts next year. After the courts ruled that electronic signatures could not count, advocates collected only a fraction of the 980,000 required. And from now on the minimum will be 141,000.
The requirement will grow 16 percent, or more than 199,000 signatures, in another fast-growing state: Florida, which is also by far the biggest state where citizen democracy's prospects in the future are driven by participation in the past.
It permits people to propose amendments to the state constitution, with 60 percent supermajorities required, and two of the most prominent have been on the ballot in recent years. In 2018 the state voted to allow almost all former felons to resume voting after they are through with prison, probation and parole — a list to which the Legislature has now added payment of fines and other court costs. Last month the majority of 57 percent was not enough to open the state's primaries to all voters, the top two finishers advancing to November regardless of party.
The other states where citizens may propose ballot measures do not tie their minimal signature requirements to the most recent turnout — and the current ranges are from 17,000 in South Dakota to 59 times that amount, or 997,000, in California.
Most base the number on the total votes cast in the last governor's race. But, either way, the paradoxical result is similar: Only fewer votes for candidates from one year to the next will mean an easier road for initiative-writers.
After turnout for the 2014 midterm plunged to its lowest level since World War II, the thresholds dropped 11 percent nationwide — and the number of citizen initiatives and veto referendums more than doubled, to 76 on statewide ballots in 2016.
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Organizer: Campaign Legal Center
Meet with democracy advocates from Virginia, Missouri and Alaska to discuss some of the most talked-about ballot initiatives in 2020. We'll focus on voting rights, money in politics, independent redistricting commissions and citizen-led efforts to reform our democracy.
CLC experts and state leaders will offer a brief overview of the initiatives they worked on in 2020 and provide analysis on the current trends in democracy reform. We hope you can make it!
After interviewing Maine voters in 2018 about their ranked-choice voting experiences, I was left with a firm understanding of what was required for voters to embrace this reform. Nearly every voter who expressed enthusiasm for this alternative election method said they remembered it was painful living for most of this decade with a governor, Republican Paul LePage, who was elected to his two terms with 38 percent and the 48 percent of the votes.
That kind of pain demands relief, particularly given Maine's uniquely strong political culture of supporting third-party candidates. But what other voters in the United States experience similar political pain when voting in general elections? None that I can think of.
So, when the RCV movement came to my home state of Massachusetts, that was the bar that had to be cleared: Convincing voters to solve a problem — the lack of majority winners in multi-candidate general elections — that they don't currently have.
That's a very high bar. I did not attempt to address this when I produced an installment of my documentary series on ranked elections, featuring Maine voters who supported RCV. Ballot questions are simple "Yes" or "No" choices. People who both understand and embrace the rationale for a proposed change vote yes. But if they have any doubts — any at all — they generally play it safe and vote no.
Clearly the RCV issue did not clear that basic but essential hurdle in the minds of Massachusetts voters. Last week they voted 55 percent to 45 percent against switching to ranked elections for all primaries and general elections for Congress, governor and other statewide executive positions, the Legislature and some countywide posts.
Without voters having a visceral understanding of why they need to support RCV, the way Maine voters did, the for and against arguments cancel each other out and "no" becomes the default choice. I experienced that firsthand many times in direct and social media conversations with friends and acquaintances. One exchange stands out:
"From what I understand" a friend said, RCV would polarize the country further by allowing the most extreme candidates in a partisan primary to win, setting up a general election without any moderate candidates. Ironically, he cited the very same congressional election this year that RCV advocates pointed to, for different reasons: The Democratic primary for an open House seat in Massachusetts this summer, won by moderate Jake Auchincloss with just 23 percent in a nine-person field where the other top candidates were far to his left.
Had RCV been in place, my friend asserted, the moderate would have had no chance to be nominated.
I was caught off guard hearing two advantages I see in RCV — winning candidates always have a majority of support, and consensus-oriented campaign strategies will work best — turned upside down. It is a sign of our times that two rational people can look at the same set of facts and reach different conclusions.
After batting down some of the usual RCV misperceptions, like the unfairness of some people getting multiple votes and the "it's too complicated" complaint, I had to tackle my friend's suspicions of something fishy about the first application of RCV in Maine resulting in a Republican congressman's defeat in 2018 — reenforcing, for him, the false narrative that RCV is a liberal Trojan horse to gain power.
I pointed out that if neighboring New Hampshire had used a ranking system in 2016, Republican Kelly Ayotte would have been reelected to the Senate because a Libertarian acted as the spoiler, receiving more votes than Ayotte's margin of defeat. The same thing happened in my friend's congressional district two years before: The Republican challenger he supported lost to a vulnerable incumbent Democrat because a Libertarian (again) acted as the spoiler for the Republican. (This raises a puzzling question as to why so many Republicans oppose RCV based on one election in Maine. There is strong evidence they would benefit from an RCV system limiting the Libertarian spoiler phenomenon.)
Then I appealed to his pain, a pain that intuitively exists with many voters on both left and right. I reminded him of our "common ground" frustrations with the current political environment: the power of the partisan duopoly, and the silencing of many voices in campaigns, sustained by the current binary voting system.
I hit a nerve and explained how ranked elections would remedy this.
"Well now that you put it that way" he said, he felt he could support the idea. I assume he still voted no on the Massachusetts ballot question, because he was not getting any reinforcing messages about the pain RCV alleviates for him. Instead he got a cacophony of voices, giving less weight to paid advertising and more to the views of a popular governor and several influencers who opposed the measure.
So far, the post-mortem on why the proposal failed focuses on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on grassroots canvassing and how it created anxiety in voters, making them less prone to disturb the status quo. While Covid-19 impacted the election, it cannot be blamed for a 10-point blowout in which the winners spent $10,000 and the losers $10 million.
The problem was much deeper. The messaging did not resonate. At best, the message was that ranked elections are "neat to have," not that it could solve problems that afflict voters. As a passionate supporter of RCV, it pains me to write that. But the numbers don't lie.
In a time of massive voter dissatisfaction with our political system — much of it related to the two-party stranglehold — the democracy reform movement could not convince voters to adopt reform. This requires a fundamental rethinking of the messaging strategy.
Colorado will remain committed to pledging its electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, just as soon as enough states decide the outcome do the same.
Last year the state enacted a law under which it joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which 14 other states and D.C. have embraced. Voters statewide narrowly decided Tuesday to affirm that decision. The referendum got 52 percent of the vote in complete but unofficial returns — a winning margin of about 135,000 votes out of 2.8 million cast.
This is a small, but not insignificant, win for reform advocates who say doing away with the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote will boost turnout and civic engagement because more Americans will feel their vote matters.
Being part of the pact means promising all the state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes nationwide — but only once states forming an Electoral College majority sign on. That magic number is 270. The other places, all reliably Democratic, have a combined 187 votes, so the deal is a long way from kicking in.
Colorado has 9 electoral votes but is likely to gain a 10th next year due to population growth. It has switched from red to purple to pretty blue in recent years. Joe Biden carried the state Tuesday by about 15 points, the third straight win for the Democratic nominee but the largest winning margin from the party in modern times, and the Democrats also took a Senate seat from the GOP.
Considering two of the most recent presidents — George W. Bush and Donald Trump — got elected despite finishing second in the popular vote, proponents say the compact assures whichever candidate is the most popular nationwide is the winner.
Transitioning out of the Electoral College system and into the popular vote system via the compact is completely legal, its advocates say, and doesn't require clearing the high hurdles of amending the Constitution. But GOP leaders nationwide fear this switch would disadvantage their party by turning all voting power over to blue cities.
Opponents of the pact in Colorado also argued that its adoption would assure presidential campaigns are conducted entirely in the metropolitan areas of the biggest states — meaning the vast rural reaches of the state would get ignored.
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