GOP escalates fight against citizen-led voting initiatives

By DAVID A. LIEB, Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions this year supporting proposed ballot initiatives to expand voting access, ensure abortion rights and legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona, Arkansas and Michigan .

However, voters may not have a say because Republican officials or judges blocked the November election’s proposals, citing flawed wording, procedural flaws or insufficient petition signatures.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and Arizona have put constitutional amendments on the ballot that would make it more difficult to vote for civic initiatives in the future.

Republican opposition to the initiative process is part of a multi-year trend that gained momentum as pro-Democratic groups increasingly used petitions to force public votes on issues Republican-led lawmakers had opposed. In dependable Republican Missouri, for example, voters have approved initiatives to expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana. An initiative that wants to legalize recreational cannabis is facing a lawsuit from an anti-drug activist aiming to have it removed from the November election.

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Some Democrats claim that Republicans are undermining the will of the people by making the voting process more difficult.

“What is happening now is just a web of technical means to thwart the process in states where voters are using the people’s tool to effect immediate positive change in their lives,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. which has worked with progressive groups sponsoring the blocked initiatives.

“This is not how our democracy should work,” she added

Republicans who have erected hurdles to unsolicited bids claim they are protecting the integrity of the legislative process from well-funded interest groups trying to bend state policy in their favor.

“I think the legislature is a much purer way of getting things done and it represents the people a lot better than having this jungle where you just throw it on the ballot,” said the South Dakota state representative, Tim Goodwin, who has repeatedly targeted the initiative procedure with restrictions.

About half of the states allow civic initiatives, in which petition signers can bypass a legislature to introduce proposed legislation or constitutional amendments directly to voters. But law enforcement or judicial officials often still play some role in the process, usually by confirming that the wording of the ballot is clear and accurate and that the petition distributors have collected enough valid signatures from registered voters.

In Michigan, two Republican members of the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers last week blocked initiatives to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and expand voting options. Each measure had significantly more than the required 425,000 signatures. But GOP board members said the voting measure had unclear wording and the abortion measure was flawed due to spacing issues that crumpled some words.

Proponents have appealed both decisions to the Michigan Supreme Court, which is composed of a majority of Democratically appointed judges.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, whose judges run in bipartisan elections, is considering an appeal of an August decision blocking an initiative that would legalize adult-use recreational marijuana.

The state board of election commissioners, which has only one Democrat among its many Republicans, found that the election title was misleading because it failed to mention that it would remove potency limits in an existing medical marijuana provision. As the deadline for certifying initiative titles has passed, the Supreme Court has allowed the measure on the general election ballot while it decides whether to count the votes.

A lawsuit filed by supporters of the initiative alleges that a 2019 law passed by the Republican-led legislature violates the Arkansas Constitution by allowing the board of directors to reject ballots.

“The (initiative) process in Arkansas has become more difficult cycle by cycle as the Legislature continues to add more requirements,” said Steve Lancaster, an attorney with Responsible Growth Arkansas who supports the marijuana amendment.

It would be even harder if voters in November’s election backed a law-mandated amendment that would require a 60 percent approval vote to authorize citizen-initiated voting measures or future constitutional amendments.

In Arizona, the mostly Republican-appointed Supreme Court recently blocked a proposed constitutional amendment that would have extended early voting and limited lobbyists’ gifts to the legislature. The measure would also have specifically prohibited the Legislature from overturning the results of the presidential election, which some Republicans were investigating following the loss of President Donald Trump in 2020.

After a lower court initially ruled the measure could appear on the November ballot, the Arizona Supreme Court ordered the judge to reconsider. It then upheld a subsequent decision discarding enough petition signatures to prevent the initiative from qualifying for the vote.

Still on the ballot are several other amendments referenced by the Arizona Republican-led Legislature. These measures would limit initiatives to a single issue, require a 60 percent supermajority to approve tax proposals, and expand the Legislature’s powers to change voter-approved initiatives.

These proposals come after Arizona Republicans spent the past decade passing legislation that would make it harder for citizens’ groups to vote. State laws now require petition sheets to be printed accurately and prohibit the use of a photocopier to create new ones. Other laws require paid circulators to provide their registration number on each petition sheet, have it notarized, and check a box that they have been paid.

“The effect is that it’s going to be a lot harder and a lot more expensive to get the signatures to get any of these proposals on the ballot,” said Terry Goddard, a Democrat who served as the state’s attorney general from 2003 to 2011.

This year, after years of trying, Goddard was finally able to vote on an initiative that would require nonprofit groups that spend large sums on elections to disclose their donors.

Earlier this summer, South Dakota voters rejected a measure that would have made it harder to pass tax and spending initiatives. The Republican-led Legislature’s proposal would have required a 60 percent vote to raise taxes or spend a specific amount of money. Voters rejected the measure with 67%.

“It just seems like a way to suppress voters. honestly,” said Joshua Matzner, a Democrat, after voting against it.

Associated Press writers Bob Christie of Phoenix and Stephen Groves of Sioux Falls, South Dakota contributed to this report.

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