Democracy Decoded: Season 3, Episode 4 Transcript
Simone Leeper: In our elections, every voice should be heard and every vote should count equally. This is a vital part of our democracy, but what happens when voters don't feel their voices are being heard?
Micheal Davis Jr.: Unfortunately, folks, myself included, have felt little urgency at times as policies have impacted our lives and communities.
Leeper: That's Micheal Davis Jr, the Executive Director of Promote The Vote, a coalition of organizations in Michigan working together to increase civic participation. Back in 2018, Micheal and other Michiganders decided their concerns weren't being addressed by the legislators, so they decided to do something about it by making use of a powerful tool in our democracy, the ballot initiative. Ballot initiatives can help voters bring about change in a more direct way. They allow measures to be introduced on local and state ballots, bypassing legislators, and putting matters directly before voters. Ballot initiatives can be a response to feeling disenfranchised or underrepresented by the complicated legislative process in many states.
I'm Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. In this episode, we're going to unpack the power of the ballot initiative to institute change at the local or state level.
Back in 2018, when Promote The Vote First came together. Too many Michiganders were having difficulty accessing the ballot. So the coalition wrote their first ballot initiative known as Proposal 3.
Davis: It was the most expansive package of voting rights reforms ever adopted through a ballot initiative and was overwhelmingly passed by Michigan voters.
Leeper: The initiative included changes to allow any voter to cast their ballot via mail if they wanted to. Micheal said this directly contributed to historic turnout in the State's next election cycle. The success of Prop 3 in 2018 helped pave the way for Michigan voters to strengthen their democracy by continuing to expand access to the ballot in the year since. This has included streamlining vote by mail, expanding access to early voting, and increasing opportunities to register to vote. In 2022, one of Promote The Vote's biggest accomplishments was establishing early voting for Michiganders through Prop 2.
Davis: Michiganders were not able to vote early in person, so Prop 2 allowed for that nine days of early voting. People's schedules change and families are facing different things in these times. So allowing those nine days of early voting for people to be able to go in there and do it themselves was key to increasing accessibility.
Leeper: Thanks to the ballot initiatives that pro-democracy groups like Promote The Vote are passing, Michigan is setting the stage for what a more inclusive and representative democracy can look like, even in a state with a significant partisan divide.
Davis: Ballot initiatives are integral to being able to strengthen the freedom to vote. They're important when you have a state like Michigan where there's a profound disconnect between the priorities of the people and the focus of the legislature.
Leeper: Ballot initiatives are an important tool that voters can use to directly influence politics at the state and local level. And every year voters are taking matters into their own hands to protect their right to have their voice is heard.
Nott: A ballot initiative is a proposed law that's put on the ballot for voters to consider. If the initiative received enough votes, it becomes a law. But the process of getting an initiative on the ballot varies from state to state, but generally involves a collecting a certain number of signatures.
Leeper: That's Lata Nott, Senior Legal Counsel of Voting Rights at Campaign Legal Center. She says ballot initiatives can often be a way for voters to circumvent their state legislatures if they feel their voices aren't being heard.
Nott: I think that's at the heart of ballot initiatives generally. The will of ordinary people should take precedence over the interest of politicians, and since voting rights and election administration have become very politicized issues, and oftentimes we see legislators voting along party lines because of that, it's great to have these measures where actual voters can express that they feel differently.
Leeper: So let's go through how ballot initiatives actually work. First, coalitions like Promote The Vote, do a lot of research to be sure that what they're proposing could take hold with voters. They look at data from past elections to evaluate the political landscape and speak with others who are similarly interested in democracy reform. And once they're confident that a proposal reflects the will of a majority of voters, they search for partnerships that will also carry out their message. Here's Micheal explaining how his team gathered support for Prop 2 from Partners and Citizens.
Davis: It really started initially with our coalition and talking to our partners about the issues and the advocacy options, and then moving into some of that public buy-in space where we are making sure that what we believe to be common sense reforms were actually what Michiganders thought as well.
Leeper: As a ballot initiative grows in popularity, it's not uncommon for there to be an opposing campaign fighting against the initiative.
Davis: The outreach process was very interesting. We saw many harmful election misinformation texts. We really had to work with our volunteers to make sure that they were articulating the provisions in our ballot initiative specifically.
Leeper: A key part of the process of getting an initiative on the ballot is gathering signatures. Even measures with popular changes aimed at expanding voting access can face difficulties when trying to build public approval. Here's Lata again.
Nott: Getting enough signatures to get a ballot initiative on the ballot can be difficult. You might have a very short timeframe to gather a large number of signatures from registered voters and the exact number of signatures and the geographic distribution of those signatures and the timeframe you have to collect them, that varies depending on a particular state's laws.
Leeper: Supporters of a ballot initiative will often volunteer and sometimes get paid to gather signatures. They play an important role in the process reaching voters throughout their respective state or locality.
Davis: The result of our signature gatherers was great. Here in Lansing I was able to go from one place to another and listen to the different pitches, and it was just the variance of people that we had in our coalition and just the number of places that were covered. Farmers' markets, churches, different sporting events, kids' events. Just the breadth of our coalitions was really showed through in that signature gathering phase.
Leeper: Gathering enough signatures to get a measure on the ballot can already be really tough, and then that measure still has to get enough votes to pass. But in recent years, politicians across the country have been trying to make it even more difficult for ballot initiatives to get before voters by raising the amount of signatures needed for the initiative to be considered or otherwise constricting the ways supporters can gather those signatures and then raising the threshold of votes required for them to pass. Here's Lata.
Nott: A proposed constitutional amendment in Utah sought to raise the threshold from a simple majority of 60%, and one in Florida sought to raise the threshold from 60 to 67%. This is significant because you essentially have a minority of voters able to veto the vote of the majority of voters.
Leeper: Ballot initiatives are already only available in about half of US states.
Nott: What's especially troubling about the trend that we're seeing in states trying to make it harder to pass a ballot initiative is some of these efforts are directly linked to ballot initiatives that these state legislators did not like. For example, in Utah and Ohio, there were ballot initiatives that were provided for independent redistricting commissions.
Leeper: Independent redistricting commissions are citizen-formed commissions tasked with drawing district lines, a job that, when left to politicians, is often abused for their own purposes, otherwise known as gerrymandering.
Nott: As soon as these passed, we saw these efforts to make it harder for initiatives like this to pass. So there's a pretty direct link between efforts to expand democracy and efforts to undermine these vehicles to expand democracy.
Leeper: Self-interested politicians can often make it incredibly difficult for voters to make changes in the legislative process by engaging in gerrymandering or other practices that make it harder for citizens to elect representatives that reflect their interests.
Nott: So ballot initiatives can sometimes be one of the only avenues left for voters to directly influence democracy, but they're advancing policies that a majority of voters agree upon.
Leeper: Voters in Michigan use the power of the ballot initiative to improve their access to the ballot and make their voices heard. But voters in Arizona faced a different problem. Their voices were also being drowned out, but here it was by the outsized influence of wealthy special interests who were using secret spending or dark money to rig the political system in their favor.
Terry Goddard: The example that got my attention, and I think most of the voters in our state about the evils of dark money, was when a local electric company decided it wanted to make sure that they would beget future rate increases by stacking the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Leeper: That's Terry Goddard. Terry was elected Mayor of Phoenix four times an attorney General of Arizona twice. He's describing how in 2014, an electric company secretly spent more than $10 million to influence the race for two seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission, the elected body that determines how much consumers pay for electricity.
Goddard: And so they picked two candidates and marched them through the primary with amazing amounts of financial support, secretly. Nobody knew that it was coming from the utility itself and then got them elected in the general election, and then they subsequently voted for a massive increase in electric rates.
Leeper: All the while Arizona voters had no idea who was really behind their increased utility bills.
Elizabeth Shimek: And it took nearly five years for the true source of the spending to come to light when it was finally revealed that they spent $12.9 million through 16 different political groups and $10.7 million of that went to influence that commission that regulates the body, and meanwhile, these handpicked commissioners approved increases in utility bills for many customers.
Leeper: That's Elizabeth Shimek, Senior Legal Counsel for the Campaign Finance Team at Campaign Legal Center. She explained how it was possible for all the secret spending to make its way into the political system in Arizona.
Shimek: So where campaign finance laws generally require candidates and other political committees to disclose their donors, wealthy special interests have exploited gaps in existing law to secretly spend huge sums of money to influence elections. And by funneling that money through these intermediaries that are rarely required to disclose where their money came from, like 501(c) for nonprofits, different corporate bodies, these wealthy special interests are able to hide their role in attempting to influence voters at the polls.
Leeper: Donors funneling large sums of money through 501(c) for nonprofits and other entities is a huge problem, not just in Arizona, but in states and municipalities across the country and in elections at the federal level as well. Secret spending makes it difficult for voters to know which corporate and political interests are for or against legislation and initiatives that will impact their daily lives. So finally, voters in Arizona had had enough and they decided to take matters into their own hands by putting together a ballot initiative. Terry Goddard played a huge role in its creation.
Goddard: In 2016, I sat down at the computer and basically wrote a statute that I thought would, if it were put on the books, would stop the secret money from infecting Arizona politics.
Leeper: What Terry was writing eventually became Prop 211, also known as The Voters Right to Know Act, an innovative policy to stop secret spending or dark money in Arizona state and local elections. It requires major campaign media spenders to disclose the original sources of large donations they receive.
Goddard: Prop 211 basically says that before you can spend money on a political advertisement, you've got to be able to disclose where it came from and even if it went through multiple separate parties on the way to this expense, you've got to chart that entire process.
Leeper: Elizabeth explains further.
Shimek: Wealthy special interests often run election ads that are deliberately misleading, and voters need to know who's funding these ads so that they can weigh their credibility and cast an informed vote. So at its core, Prop 211 provides Arizona voters with this information about who is funding these ads. That includes information about the people or groups who might've acted as intermediaries, passing along that money from the original source all the way to the eventual spender, and this information is then shared with the public via disclosure reports and on add disclaimers which protect those voters' literal right to know.
Leeper: Prop 211 eventually passed with overwhelming public support, but not without a major struggle to overcome backlash by some of the wealthy special interests and the politicians that aligned with them. By 2018, after a few iterations of the petition, Prop 211 had received around 300,000 signatures.
Goddard: But the courts disagreed. We were challenged, as you always are, by the Americans for Prosperity Group, and they found a couple of legal loopholes that actually caused the disqualification of about 60,000 of our signatures, which put us just about 2,000 below the number necessary to qualify for the ballot.
Leeper: Terry and other supporters of this reform went back to the drawing board.
Goddard: Then in 2020, now this time we started at the very beginning with a very much improved initiative statute, and we were absolutely on track to be able to file in the end of June of 2020.
Leeper: In March 2020, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic put a pause on their efforts.
Goddard: And that was incredibly disappointing, but we came back again, and so we were using a big volunteer effort. We were able to get enough to qualify for the ballot over the objection of the Americans for Prosperity and some of the local dark money groups who sued us but were unsuccessful.
Leeper: There's a lot of work that goes into passing a ballot initiative, writing the text of the initiative, gathering signatures, researching solutions, and crafting the messaging. With experience both in political office and outside halls of power, Terry understands that although it's a daunting task to have them passed and enacted, valid initiatives play an important role in our democracy.
Goddard: I think the constitutional right in Arizona and about 20 other states to initiate legislation is a very important citizen right. It's sacred in my opinion, but it is difficult.
Leeper: But the grassroots support that accumulated from everyday voters and coalitions made it clear to Terry and the organization coalesced around passing Prop 211 that this issue was important to the citizens of Arizona.
Goddard: The fact that our voters in Arizona had been fooled by a major utility into voting for two commissioners who did not have their best interest in mind, who were in fact nothing but shills for the utility and would without thinking, vote for big rate increases. That caused a lot of anger. So one of the things that I think came home to our voters immediately is if they weren't engaged, if they weren't paying attention, they might well be fooled into electing a group of people who frankly were opposed to the interest of the citizens.
Leeper: To Terry, that's why politics at the local and state level matter so much.
Goddard: The political process can end up hurting you if you don't pay attention, especially when it's impossible to find out where these political ads originate, why they're being put on the air, what special interest is particularly concerned about getting your vote.
Shimek: The fact is the decisions that are being made in government that have often the biggest and most direct impact in people's lives are happening at that state and local level. It's where decisions are being made about how much your power bill is going to be, like in Arizona. It's where you see decisions being made about school curriculum, about healthcare for low-income families and about really important things like what your district looks like when you're voting, what information politicians have to report about the money that they're receiving. If we aren't paying attention to and participating in politics at the state and local level, decisions are being made and they're being made by folks who don't always have the average person's best interest in mind.
Leeper: When voters have a clear idea of who they're putting into office and what their political agenda is, democracy is more responsive to the needs of its voters, but what's preventing these candidates from being bought by wealthy special interest groups. In our next episode, we'll look into campaign finance contribution limits, how the influx of money makes it harder for voters to elect candidates of their choice, what happens in states where there are no donor limits, and what voters can do to keep politicians accountable.
Special thanks to Micheal Davis Jr. Lata Nott, Terry Goddard and Elizabeth Shimek for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes along with a full transcript of the show.
Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at campaignlegalcenter.org.
Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, Legal Counsel for Redistricting at CLC. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, Multimedia Manager, Mannal Haddad, Senior Communications Manager for Voting Rights and Redistricting, and Brendan Quinn, Senior Communications Manager for Campaign Finance and Ethics. This podcast episode was produced by Michelle Baker, edited by Paulina Velasco and mixed by Trend Light Burn.
Democracy Decoded is a member of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at democracygroup.org.