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.