While most of the focus of this past US election was on the race for the White House, citizens in 32 states also voted on 120 statewide ballot measures. These measures directly impacted local policies ranging from tax reform to drug decriminalization or criminal justice, up until the nature and functioning of their democracy itself.

US ballot measures (also called “propositions” or “questions”) provide citizens with a unique form of direct democracy, allowing them to propose an idea for a statutory change and to gather signatures that place it on the ballot for popular vote. These changes impact the state in which they’re passed, and they sometimes deviate from state or national legislation (national law for instance prohibits the recreational use of marijuana, whilst California allows it). Depending on each state, the process by which ballot measures are established, varies, though the result of its workings is unequivocally the same: Enhanced civic empowerment, agency and engagement. 

As Danielle Allen confirms in The Washington Post, ballot measures are of crucial importance in order to deliver equal voice and representation, and to create responsive political institutions. Even when ideas do not make it to the ballot or eventually are rejected by voters, the initiative and referendum processes tend to make for much needed conversation-starters, while providing points of leverage to be heard beyond the traditional political structure. As with every election, the the questions on the 2020 ballot were far-reaching, giving voters the opportunity to weigh in on a variety of local topics.

Americans are using direct ballots to create new mechanisms of direct democracy and further reform their electoral processes from top to bottom. This has been a long-term trend (did you know Senators were not always directly elected?), but national awareness and interest has increased in recent years in response to polarization and as a means to fast track popular policies like raising the minimum wage, and legalizing gambling and marijuana. The list below includes several specific changes designed to increase direct democracy and individual voter impact.

1. The National Popular Vote Compact

In two of the last five elections, the elected president was not the candidate receiving the most votes, which has resulted in intensified public anger at a system in which all votes aren’t counted equally. The trend has been increasing: after Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000 despite a lead of 550.000 votes, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 even though despite losing the popular vote by over 3,000,000 votes.

A proposal known as the National Vote Compact is aiming to having states commit all their electoral college votes to the candidate that receives the most votes nationally, rather than to the candidate who receives the most votes in their state. This would keep the Electoral College in place, but functionally move away from a “winner-takes-all” system to a more proportional one, and decrease the need for candidates to win certain “swing states” as a path to victory But in order to take effect, more states will need to join until a representation of 270 or more electoral votes is reached. The latest developments from the 2020 ballots portray a rising consensus among citizens to neutralize the Electoral System, as they look for more inclusive and direct voting systems. This year, in Colorado, voters rejected proposition 113 aiming to leave the vote compact.

2. Electoral mapping and access to voting

Every 10 years, states redraw district lines, which has in some cases led to the act of “gerrymandering”. As Michael Wines explains in The New York Times, gerrymandering is a way for governing parties to cement themselves in power by tilting the political map in their favor. The goal is to draw boundaries of legislative districts so that as many seats as possible are likely to be won by the ruling party’s candidates.

Activists are successfully pushing for the creation of independent citizen redistricting commissions through ballot initiatives and legislation, taking the power from legislators, and eliminating the conflict of interest. Virginia depoliticized electoral mapping in time for the redistricting of the country for the rest of the decade. In Mississippi, voters passed a measure designed to remove the electoral vote requirement which made it difficult for democrats and black voters to elect their preferred candidate. Missouri took a step in the opposite direction, eliminating the “Clean Missouri” Amendment passed two years ago which redistributed electoral maps and instated a nonpartisan state demographer (if you’re wondering how non-partisan election mapping works, head this way!)

In some states, voters passed measures to restrict the right to vote. Two examples:

  • In Alabama and Texas, ballot measures to change the wording and stating that only US citizens can vote were passed.
  • In California, a ballot proposing to lower the voting age to age 17 was rejected. Extending the right to vote to parolees, however, was passed.

Incorporating digital participation tools could help solve the electoral mapping issues by making it easier to petition and increasing representativity.

3. Ranked choice voting (RCV) and multi-candidate primaries

The ability to vote for a candidate who best represents your political outlook is an essential part of a democracy. Yet, because of the US two-party system, voters who favor a third-party candidate are facing a constant dilemma: To vote for the candidate they prefer, or to vote “tactically”, in order to avoid their least favorite candidate from winning.

To counter this situation, the state of Maine (alongside 11 other states) implemented Ranked Choice Voting at state level, earlier this year, giving voters the freedom to rank candidates in order of choice, maximizing the effectiveness of every vote, and encouraging cross-party cooperation. In a handful of states, RCV was put on the 2020 ballot to be implemented during primaries in order to reduce their importance and allow citizens to vote for a wider range of candidates:

  • In Alaska, a ballot measure to establish party-agnostic primaries, where the top four candidates advance to the general election, was passed.
  • In Massachusetts, voters rejected a ballot initiative to establish ranked-choice voting for state-level elections.
  • In Florida, Amendment 3 to institute top-two open primaries for state offices was rejected.

Results indicate that citizens aren’t ready to move to ranked voting just yet, which is possibly linked to fears of complicating the voting system. Incorporating digital democracy tools in order to try out RCV experience more locally might be a first step in the right direction.

4. Citizen initiatives

More than any other issue, the outcome of direct ballots in regard to ballot voting and citizen initiatives itself points towards one and the same message: Citizens are very attached to their right to actively participate, petition and generate change. In the 2020 election, US voters opposed all amendments making it harder for these initiatives to influence the decision-making process:

  • In Arkansas, a new amendment meant to make it harder for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot was rejected. 
  • In North Dakota, a new amendment meant to make it more difficult for citizens to weigh in on constitutional amendments was rejected. 
  • In Florida, Amendment n.4 had a similar objective, and was also rejected.
  • In Montana, two amendments were accepted which will clarify the legislation around citizen initiatives, and to explicitly state that signatures requirements employ a legislative district-based system, not a county-based system. 

Even though the US looks more divided than ever on a national scale, state ballot propositions tell a different story. In contrast to Switzerland, the only other country with direct ballots, most of the US citizens’ initiatives are passed, demonstrating that can voters agree about significant priorities when they are given the opportunity co-determine the agenda. 

Direct ballot measures are an efficient way of reforming our democracy, but they’re not enough. Digital democracy tools enable local governments to engage in continuous dialogue with their communities, and delve into collective intelligence to solve the global challenges we are facing. In times of health and financial crisis, community engagement is a way to increase trust and to involve citizens in better, fairer policy decisions.

If you are interested in starting one your own community engagement project, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Valerie Steenhaut