Columns » Jay Barth

The limits of direct democracy


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Ballot measures have begun a rebirth in Arkansas during the last decade after losing popularity in the middle of the last century. Proposals covering an array of topics have been placed on the ballot and a much larger percentage of those that make it to the voters — especially through the legislative process — have passed as compared to past decades. This rejuvenation has been driven by a combination of the relative ease and cheapness of doing direct democracy work in Arkansas, policy entrepreneurs who wish to make a name for themselves (like former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who promoted the lottery amendment in 2004) or make a difference in terms of public policy (like Regnat Populus' Paul Spencer), the interest of national groups in propelling policy change through state initiatives (the marijuana legalization movement) and those interested primarily in promoting turnout for other races on the ballot (the minimum wage effort in 2014).

The 2016 cycle could well be a modern peak for ballot measure appearances on the statewide ballot. In addition to the three constitutional amendments forwarded to the voters by the General Assembly, eight ballot measures have been approved for the petitioning process and at least that number of additional initiatives or constitutional amendments is at some stage between drafting and approval for distribution by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office. Some efforts will inevitably peter out (an effort to overturn the ban on expansive local antidiscrimination ordinances already falls in this category) and it remains unclear how debilitating a 2014 constitutional amendment ratcheting up signature requirements for the initial July 2016 deadline will be, but an array of measures ranging from shortening legislative term limits loosened in 2014 to legalizing medical marijuana in the state seem to have the infrastructure in place for a successful signature-gathering effort.

Even with the new strictures on signature deadlines in Arkansas, all signs are that advocates will invest more of their energy in ballot measures in the years ahead because direct democracy remains a potent tool for policy change that bypasses the legislature. Because of the conservative bent of the legislature, in the near future most of these efforts will come from the left (last week in announcing his group's new emphasis on ballot measures, the ACLU's national executive director explicitly mentioned Arkansas as a possible future target in the effort to move away from mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders to "smart justice" that invests in drug counseling and job training) or from groups wanting to regulate the legislature directly (the term limits measure and a new Regnat Populus effort to enhance campaign finance disclosure fall into this category). When done smartly, direct democracy work is a great investment of political capital.

However, those employing direct democracy should also be aware of its limitations. These advocates often emphasize the measures' impact on engaging new voters in the process, creating a positive impact elsewhere on the ballot. In 2014, for instance, advocates of the increase in the state minimum wage and of expanding alcohol sales across the state strongly believed that those measures could create an electorate more favorable to Democrats in general.

Undoubtedly, in certain situations the presence of ballot measures on the ballot does alter the composition of the electorate (for good or ill); a decade ago, amendments that limited access to same-sex marriage clearly brought infrequent voters to the polls — including, as Janine Parry of the University of Arkansas and I argued examining turnout data, white rural voters in Arkansas in 2004. But, cases like that appear exceptional. A new study of Arkansas data from 2014 by Parry, myself and another political scientist shows that voters had almost no knowledge of the five measures on the ballot that year — including measures such as those about alcohol and the minimum wage that had been much discussed. Fewer than half of voters claimed to know that any initiatives or referendums were on the ballot just a few weeks before the election and nearly two-thirds of that group was unable — when pressed — to recall a single measure correctly. (Only 15 percent of all voters knew that the minimum wage measure, in which Democrats had invested such great hopes, would be on their ballot.) The opportunity to vote on individual ballot measures seemed also to make no impact on voters' excitement about voting in the election.

Thus, however important direct democracy is for reshaping key public policies in the state, its proponents need to understand what the tool can (and can't) accomplish.


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