How Conservatives Can Take the Initiative with Ballot Measures
The left has harnessed state ballot measures in recent years to enact its preferred policies in red states, but the right has remained passive and needs to wake up. Putting popular policies directly to voters could enact conservative reforms even in blue states.
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia allow some form of citizen-led ballot measures. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, pro-choice advocates have organized ballot initiatives to expand abortion access. And the Fairness Project has led initiatives in seven red states to expand Medicaid to able-bodied people.
Organized labor is responsible for many of the left’s ballot initiatives. A Service Employees International Union affiliate funds the Fairness Project, which has bankrolled efforts on the minimum wage, abortion, paid sick leave and payday lending.
Conservatives have no similar group organizing right-leaning ballot efforts. With deep-blue states like California, Massachusetts, Illinois and Washington state all having some form of citizen-led ballot measure, an organized effort could help enact positive reforms by circumventing Democratic lawmakers on popular issues:
• School choice. The explosion in school-choice efforts in red states shows that parents want more and better options after the disastrous pandemic learning loss. But in blue states, Democratic lawmakers and the teachers unions stand in the schoolhouse door. Ballot initiatives seeking to expand education savings accounts and charter schools would give voters—and parents—a say. These ballot campaigns would also remind the electorate that wealthy politicians like Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and California Gov. Gavin Newsom send their children to private schools while blocking policies that would give low-income constituents the same opportunity.
• Work requirements. Wisconsin’s nonbinding vote in April on imposing work requirements for welfare benefits won nearly 80% support among voters in a swing state, consistent with the 70% to 75% support this policy has nationwide. If ballot initiatives can write Medicaid expansion into red-state constitutions, such measures can also require blue-state governors to submit requests for Medicaid work requirements to federal officials. While the Biden administration wouldn’t likely accept such requests, supporters of work requirements can lay the groundwork for a future Republican president to do so.
• Collective bargaining. In Wisconsin, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 famously overcame union attacks, and an eventual recall attempt, to pass Act 10, which limited collective bargaining for public-sector unions. Given Mr. Walker’s success, conservatives should consider an initiative to limit such collective bargaining in blue states. Another possible goal: Enacting right-to-work laws in these states via ballot measures. Just as union activists overturned Ohio’s law limiting public-sector bargaining in a 2011 referendum, conservatives should assess whether any blue states would be receptive to workplace freedom.
Decades ago, California voters enacted two key conservative policies via statewide ballot. Proposition 209 in 1996 outlawed affirmative action and survived a 2020 legislative referendum seeking its repeal. Proposition 13 in 1978, arguably the most famous and influential ballot initiative in American history, capped property taxes and presaged the Reagan tax-reform movement. Yet in the time since, barring some noteworthy exceptions on abortion and moral issues, the right’s interest in ballot initiatives has waned, leaving millions of voters in deep-blue states few chances to experience free-market, limited-government policies.
“First you win the argument, then you win the vote,” said Margaret Thatcher. On issues such as school choice, work requirements and collective bargaining, conservatives are winning the argument. But to win the vote, conservatives must take the initiative to give the electorate a say.
This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.