Reforming the Ballot Initiative Process: Making Direct Democracy Work
Monday, October 20, 2008
Reforming the Ballot Initiative Process: Making Direct Democracy Work
Direct democracy through popular intiatives and referenda began a century ago as a grassroots, progressive reform aimed at circumventing corrupt legislatures and increasing civic involvement. The long history of this reform  indicates that in the whole this experiment in direct popular participation in the legislative process has been successful as an avenue for passing populist policies that maintains the favor of the public over time. However, throughout this history there have also been attempts, sometimes successful, to manipulate the process and the electorate into passing legislation that would not garner majority support had voters possessed an accurate conception of its content and effect. This Dispatch covers the threats to direct democracy from fraud, manipulation, and a lack of accurate information regarding ballot measures, as well as reforms that can bolster the integrity of initiative and referendum campaigns.
Direct Democracy Under Siege: Increasingly in recent years, a small group of wealthy individuals and powerful interest groups on the Right have been using deception and secrecy to push measures that undermine the interests of the vast majority of people. Often using a menagerie of shadow organizations to hide their identity, these actors manipulate the process in multiple ways: they cloak their financial backing of ballot campaigns, they misrepresent the content and purpose of measures through misleading ballot titles and descriptions, and they commit fraud in the signature gathering process to qualify for the ballot. At every stage the ability of voters to make a well informed choice that reflects their true positions on an issue is undermined and the ability of direct democracy to serve the citizens is diminished.
The extent of these problems grows as the money spent in support and opposition to ballot measures increases rapidly. In 2006 the dozen most expensive campaigns  generated a total of $329 million in spending. The most expensive campaign, an a renewable energy proposal in California, saw over $150 million in spending alone.
The Ballot Initiative Entrepreneurs of the Right
There are actually a relatively small group of wealthy individuals and rogue signature gathering organizations that work with conservative organizations to push a handful of pet policies around the country. Sometimes they have a vested economic interest in the policy and sometimes they are ideologically driven. Primarily they push measures that attack workers and consumers for the benefit of the few. Two examples illustrate the contours of this problem.
Ward Connerly - A one man crusade against civil rights protections: Perhaps no individual has demonstrated more zeal in manipulating the initiative process to pass policies that are far removed from mainstream opinion than Ward Connerly . Beginning with California Proposition 209  in 1996, he has waged a campaign against any recognition of race in state policies across the nation. And throughout his years pushing measures that gut affirmative action requirements, he has never let the unpopularity of his views get in the way . Instead of convincing voters of his views through persuasion, in state after state he has used fraud to gather signatures in order to qualify for the ballot - misleading voters on the content of the measures, such as convincing voters at a civil rights rally to sign the petition by saying it will "end discrimination," and employing signature gathering organizations that consistently manufacture the signatures they need to qualify.
Connelly's drive to dismantle affirmative action state by state has not abated, but after years of dirty tricks progressives have learned that his use of deception is his biggest vulnerability. This year Connelly tried to put his anti-civil rights measures on the ballot in five states, but in the end his measures qualified in only two. In Arizona, PSN board member, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema , spearheaded a citizen campaign to scrutinize the nominating petitions, which had been circulated by another perpetual bad actor - National Ballot Access. Sinema organized 1,000 volunteers to scrutinize the signatures.  In the end over 100,000 suspect signatures were discovered and rejected due to the grassroots effort. Now activists are suing Connelly for fraud and his campaign in Arizona is dead.
National Ballot Access - Making a buck by subverting democracy: National Ballot Access  (NBA) is a young organization run by two principals, Mary Edith "Edee" Baggett and Heidi Verougstraete, whose alleged history of signature fraud go back a dozen years. Having cut their teeth on pro-gambling ballot initiatives and then moved on to tax payer "bill of rights" (TABOR) initiatives, they have recently been retained by Ward Connelly. Just this year this toxic partnership has result in allegations of voters being told they were signing an unrelated petition on eminent domain, and rejected signatures, as well as a referral by the Secretary of State to the State Supreme Court  in Oklahoma. Missouri has seen similar accusations of signature gatherers lying about the petition that voters are being asked to sign.
A Failure of Disclosure
primary weakness in the ballot initiative process that opens the door
for manipulation and deceit is a lack of mandatory disclosure. This
problem infects multiple aspects of the process:
Shrouding donors and misleading voters are also combined when
ballot measure proponents or opponents use front organizations with
misleading names - such as Citizens for "Blank" to describe a committee
completely funded by a single corporation or corporate association.
Restoring Integrity to Direct Democracy Through Increased Disclosure and Fraud Prevention
Donations to campaigns for political office can be regulated because
there is an opportunity for quid pro quo arrangements between donors
and candidates, however, initiative campaigns are not vulnerable to the
same sort of corruption. Therefore regulating ballot campaign finances
is impermissible on First Amendment grounds. Given this restriction
the most important reforms for ballot campaigns are to prevent fraud and
increase the information voters have to make a reasoned choice.
If states have clear rules and methods of keeping
petitioners accountable, it becomes less likely that fraud will be
attempted and when fraud occurs there is a better chance it will be detected
Each of these reforms will decrease the power of monied interests to deceive voters and force special interests to be democratically accountable-- exactly the goal of those who created the ballot initiative process in the first place.
Direct Democracy is a Powerful Tool for Driving a Policy Agenda
The rightwing has been very astute in using
campaigns to further their agenda. We are all aware of the power that ballot
initiatives highlighting right wing social policies (principally
anti-same-sex marriage measures) had to drive turnout in the last
presidential election. It is not implausible that the national ballot
measure campaigns that conservatives waged put President Bush over the
top in 2004. These
campaigns are also currently an effective way to evade contribution
limits in many states, though rigorous disclosure requirements can and should temper
the effectiveness of this tactic.
PSN is Hiring: Communications/Online Outreach Associate
The Communications/Online Outreach Associate will manage all of PSN’s day-to-day media production and outreach work in close coordination with the Outreach Director.
Specific tasks will include drafting of media advisories, press releases, and op-eds and disseminating them to regional and national media outlets. The position will also involve a heavy engagement with PSN’s online outreach and visual branding strategies. The Communications Specialist will oversee the maintenance and daily updating of PSN’s website and will be responsible for executing a long-term strategy for growing PSN’s presence on the web, including content aggregation on PSN’s front page, creation and upkeep of an organizational blog, and online outreach to state and national progressive bloggers.
Applicants should have a minimum of 2 years experience in either the communications or progressive non-profit field.
Above all, the applicant must be a strong writer and editor with an understanding of online outreach, a passion for progressive politics, and a tenacious work ethic. Specifically, he or she:
- Must be able to collaborate closely with other members of the staff in order to coordinate messaging strategy and draft talking points, releases/advisories, and op-eds.
- Must be able to conduct extensive self-driven research, absorbing large amounts of information and developing a strong grasp of complicated policy issues within a relatively short timeframe. Must also be able to translate research into prose efficiently and eloquently.
- Must have innovative ideas for incorporating Web2.0 and social networking strategies into PSN’s legislator-to-legislator organizing campaigns
- Must have a strong grasp of and passion for the workings of the progressive netroots and blogosphere
- Must be exceptionally proficient with HTML and general computer skills. Basic knowledge of graphic design and/or video production is desirable but not required. Basic knowledge of Drupal is desirable but not required.
- Must have strong people skills and speak well in public.
- Must have strong project management and multi-tasking abilities.
About the Organization:
Progressive States Network aims to transform the political landscape by sparking progressive actions at the state level. Founded in 2005, the group provides coordinated research and strategic advocacy tools to state legislators and their staffs, empowering these decision-makers with everything they need to engineer forward-thinking change. Progressive States also works with non-profits and a variety of constituent groups to build a swath of support for coordinated progressive policy. The overarching goals: to get good policy passed into law and change the way issues are debated in the states.
A significant part of Progressive States efforts revolve around supporting state legislative campaigns. The organization offers legislators and their staff members with the technical and messaging support necessary to embrace progressive policy. Tapping into a network of experts in each state, the group catalogues existing or developing legislation related to six key values we support. Progressive States also accumulates research to support new laws in these areas.
Our most important values include:
- Increasing Democracy
Progressive States seeks to strengthen communication between legislators and the organizations they serve, facilitating a groundswell of interest in progressive policy that spans state, regional and ideological lines. Our board consists of labor organizations, grassroots and “netroots” groups, and key policy centers. With additional support from these organizations, Progressive States makes it even easier for lawmakers to keep open dialogues with their most savvy constituents.
Finally, Progressive States acts as a “war room” to equip legislators with the information they need to advocate good policy. Organization experts put together best-practice guidebooks and serve as surrogates for legislative staff members who need talking points and need them fast. Additionally, with an up-to-the-minute news service at www.progressivestates.org , the group acts as an information hub that keeps legislators up-to-date on progressive news from other states, helps them identify trends and emboldens them to educate each other on how to succeed.
In short, by supporting state legislators and other groups in their efforts to spark progressive actions and get good ideas passed into law, Progressive States proves that state policy matters, and that good policy leads to good politics for all.
To learn more about the organization, visit http://progressivestates.org 
How to Apply:
Email a compelling cover letter, resume and writing sample showing your ability to write about policy issues in a manner accessible to the public to:
Lauren Roberts Fairbanks
Please put "Communications/Online Outreach Associate " in the subject line.
Ballot Initiative Strategy Center 
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman , Policy Director
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