Paul Spencer, a teacher and part-time pecan farmer in Arkansas, drafted a ballot measure for 2016 to reform the state’s campaign finance laws so his fellow voters could know who paid for election ads on TV.
But he and fellow activists there knew they couldn’t do it alone. They sought the help of national election-reform groups because in Arkansas, as in many other states, initiatives can cost millions of dollars to pass.
Liberal groups working at the national level are using state ballot initiatives as their weapon of choice for 2016, but given the costs, they’re carefully planning exactly where to push these measures. And Spencer’s Arkansas proposal didn’t make the cut for 2016.
That top-down approach seems ironic. The initiative process was put in place at the beginning of the 20th century as a way for local citizens such as Spencer to band together to pass laws. And voters on the ground may not be aware that national groups are helping fuel the ballot fights in their backyards.
Still, national liberal leaders see state ballot measures as their best option for winning on some issues. Dismayed at their prospects in Congress and in Republican-dominated state legislatures, national liberal groups plan to use ballot initiatives to push raising the minimum wage in Maine, legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts, closing gun sale loopholes in Nevada, guarding endangered species in Oregon — and other campaigns in at least eight additional states.
National conservative groups, meanwhile, seem poised to play defense, setting up a battle of outsiders on state playing fields. In March, Republican-linked politicos launched the Center for Conservative Initiatives in Washington, D.C., to counter the liberal ballot measures they anticipate will arrive in record numbers nationwide in 2016.
“Liberal groups have been forced to spend heavily on ballot initiatives in an effort to circumvent elected representatives because in states around the country the public has overwhelmingly rejected their out-of-touch candidates and messages,” said the Center’s leader, Matt Walter, in an email.
The push from outsiders to pass pet policies via the ballot has occurred before, on everything from land conservation in North Dakota to how to cage chickens in California, sometimes leading to big-money fights between corporations, advocacy groups and others.
“There’s this perception out there that the initiative process is all about the little guy,” said Jennie Bowser, a consultant who for many years studied ballot measures for the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “But the truth of the matter is that it’s a big business. It’s really well organized, and it’s really well funded. And it is very, very rarely a group of local citizens who get together and try to make a difference.”
Passing popular ideas
In 2014, when a Republican wave gave conservatives more U.S. Senate seats and governors’ mansions, left-leaning activists still managed to notch victories for the minimum wage, gun control and marijuana legalization through ballot measures in Nebraska, South Dakota, Illinois, Arkansas, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia.
In 2015, they followed with wins for campaign-finance reform in Seattle and Maine.
Those successes, as well as the chance to draw more left-leaning voters to the polls, are encouraging liberal activists to push hard on the 2016 ballot.
This year, national liberal groups are especially focused on issues that prove popular in polls but that politicians have been loath to work on, such as gun control and marijuana legalization. Republicans, who generally dislike both ideas, control 30 state legislatures.
“These are issues that voters have said are very important to them in previous elections, yet nothing has changed,” said Justine Sarver, the director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which helps coordinate liberal ballot efforts.
Her group, based in Washington, D.C., plans to use 2016 to push back on conservative state legislatures but hasn’t yet announced which 2016 initiative campaigns it will aid. Though it does not disclose its donors, the group has been listed as a beneficiary of the Democracy Alliance, a network of deep-pocketed Democratic contributors including financier George Soros and San Francisco hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds. A complete list of Center for Public Integrity funders is found here.)
Everytown for Gun Safety, the pro-gun-control group with millions in funding from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, is already backing measures in two states. A Nevada initiative, which has secured its place on the 2016 ballot, would eliminate loopholes that allow firearms to be sold without background checks online and at gun shows. Activists are gathering signatures for a similar measure in Maine.
“The gun lobby can bully politicians, but it can’t bully the American people,” said Kate Folmar, deputy communications director for the group based in New York City. “And what we know is that Americans overwhelmingly support background checks.”
What national support amounts to in Nevada is money and staff expertise: Everytown for Gun Safety’s action fund gave nearly $2 million to the group set up to push the gun measure, more than 80 percent of its funding so far. It also gave $76,000 in staff time, according to state records. And the local organization, Nevadans for Background Checks, brought in more national experts when it paid a D.C.-based signature gathering firm $1.2 million to help collect more than 100,000 signatures to make the 2016 ballot.
Not all measures are as far along as the gun proposals in Nevada and Maine, as several states do not have signature collection deadlines until the spring or summer. And initiatives are not an option in every state — only 24 states allow citizen-initiated proposals on the ballot.
But marijuana legalization measures backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project are taking shape in five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. Activists with ties to the Sierra Club have announced plans for measures to block fracking in Colorado and collected signatures to support solar power in Florida. Various national groups have voiced support for minimum wage initiatives popping up across the country — including proposals for $15 per hour in California, Missouri, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and $12 per hour in Ohio and Maine.
Aside from legislative roadblocks, observers see one more reason for left-leaning groups to place big bets on ballot initiatives in 2016: Liberal measures in key states could boost Democratic turnout in the presidential election, in the same way measures blocking gay marriage are credited with helping re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004.
“We believe raising the minimum wage is good policy but also helps voters to engage in the political process,” said Paul Sonn, general counsel of the National Employment Law Project, a group that advises initiative groups and has ties to unions and the Democracy Alliance. “For some of the political players, that’s sort of an attraction to putting populist measures on the ballot.”
Top-down money decisions
National liberal groups are now calculating which states could deliver wins and which local activists deserve financial help. Though national groups have helped pass state initiatives for decades — going as far back as national reform groups that championed tax-cutting measures in California and elsewhere in the late ’70s and ’80s — this year left-leaning organizations seem especially focused on coordinating strategies for where to parachute in with resources.
The Humane Society Legislative Fund is already planning to work on several measures in 2016, including an initiative to help endangered animals in Oregon and another to give certain farm animals more room to move around in Massachusetts. John Goodwin, its political director, said his group seeks to have a national game plan for choosing when and where to push measures.
“We like to have had the right policy experts and legal experts be involved when these measures are being drafted so we get it right,” Goodwin said. “And we like to poll to make sure that these initiatives are going to be supported when they go to the ballot. So all of those are factors in determining when we will move forward with supporting a ballot initiative.”
The most limiting factor for sponsoring measures, liberal groups say, is money. Passing a ballot initiative in many states is now a multimillion-dollar endeavor. Professional signature gathering and television advertising alone can eat up campaign budgets.
“There’s limited resources. So we have to be smart and strategic,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, a senior executive at Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based election reform group that is still deciding which campaign finance proposals it will back in 2016.
When national groups like Common Cause do get involved in state ballot fights, voters may not know the efforts aren’t entirely local. For example, two committees — Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and Mainers for Accountable Elections— worked to pass a campaign-finance reform initiative in that state in November. But while the groups received hundreds of small donations from Maine residents, most of their 2015 funds came from out-of-state donors, including national advocacy groups such as Common Cause and Every Voice, as well as unions and philanthropists.
National groups emphasize that just because they are providing money and guidance doesn’t mean all ballot measures come from wonks in Washington. Goodwin says the Humane Society always works with local activists, and Sarver said the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center’s approach is collaborative.
Some national conservative groups are already gearing up to play defense, though they are staying mum about the details.
The newly formed Center for Conservative Initiatives announced broad plans to battle liberals on the ballot, fighting bureaucratic growth and promoting free enterprise, but hasn’t yet disclosed what issues it will work on in 2016. The Center is run by a nonprofit associated with the Republican State Leadership Committee, a political group that works to elect Republicans to state offices and whose largest funder is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
So far the group has disclosed opposition to only one measure — a 2015 initiative in Mississippi that would have allowed courts to enforce a school funding law.
In Florida, where a broad coalition is backing a measure to allow neighbors to sell solar power to each other, the conservative group created by billionaires Charles and David Koch, Americans for Prosperity, has criticized solar power proposals in the state. But a spokesman said the group hasn’t yet taken a position on the initiative itself.
Corporate interests are also preparing to block some liberal measures. In Colorado, environmental activists announced plans to push anti-fracking measures, and energy companies have already poured millions of dollars into a committee to oppose them, according to state records. They gave more than $1 million to the committee from July to September alone.
The threat of conservative pushback has scared some groups away from getting involved with local efforts to get measures to the ballot, since more money would be required to overcome opposition.
That’s what happened when Spencer asked national groups to help with his initiative to disclose election ad funding in Arkansas. Several groups said no.
“They looked at other states that had similar measures and similar language, and I think they were a little bit frightened by the potential pushback from groups like Americans for Prosperity or the Koch brothers,” Spencer said. “They thought it was going to be a hard sell going to their funders.”
Spencer’s group recently gave up on the campaign-finance disclosure measure for 2016. He holds out hope that similar provisions could be included in another potential ballot initiative about ethics, put forward by other activists.
“I am personally disappointed how this effort has panned out here in Arkansas,” he said in an email, calling it emblematic of “top-down grass roots activism.”
This story was co-published with the Atlantic.