Why you should care
Because this could break the gridlock on issues from gun control to marijuana legalization.
This isn’t your grandma’s gridlock. In happier times, the term simply meant a traffic jam, but now it’s a euphemism for governing. Even once-promising bipartisan efforts, like criminal justice reform, have ground to a halt, and congressional staffers tell us reporters on background that we’ve entered the twilight zone of an election year — when politicking for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will cannibalize any sort of meaningful work in the nation’s Capitol. Oh, and the highest court in the land has been short a justice for more than half a year.
When elected officials decide to play hooky, people look elsewhere for ways to affect change — and this year has the feeling of another famous election featuring the citizen activist.
The number of citizen-led measures on ballots nationwide is the highest since 2008.
So far, 74 issues will appear on state ballots in November after tallying enough signatures from registered voters, according to Ballotpedia, the most since the 68 during Barack Obama’s history-making candidacy eight years ago. “Ballot measures started as a check on corporate political power,” says Kellie Dupree, director of programs and communications at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. Such referendums helped champion women’s suffrage and election reform during the turn of the 20th century; anti-government hysteria amid the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War helped lower barriers to getting on the ballot during the early ’60s and ’70s. Back then, progressive causes dominated the roundabout tactic, but conservatives fueled the initiative heyday of the ’90s, when measures decreasing taxes and, later, banning gay marriage became all the rage. The process has returned to its progressive roots since, and this year features efforts to address politically treacherous topics like legalizing marijuana, enforcing gun control and raising the minimum wage.
Cynicism is likely leading this surge as much as any Pollyannaish belief in change. Public faith in government is at a historic low, and citizens will look to circumvent bureaucracy “as long as strong partisanship keeps certain policies from being instituted,” says Josh Altic, Ballotpedia’s project director of ballot measures. The uptick has systemic roots too. Many states require a minimum number of signatures, based on voter participation in the previous election. With turnout hitting record lows in 2014, it’s much less expensive to gather the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed. But while this election has drawn massive audiences, the long-term trend could lead to fewer ballot measures, says Altic. States have recently passed more regulations to limit or entirely curtail this practice in direct democracy. “Half of the states don’t even allow putting signatures together,” Altic says, and “every five years, it seems like it becomes harder and harder to do a successful initiative campaign.”