Making Lemonade Out of Lemons: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Ballot Measure Process

12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Brace yourselves people...on Tuesday progressives will advance important victories on a number of ballot measures including health care reform In Montana, clean energy in Missouri, stem cell research in Michigan and protecting a women's right to choose in Colorado, but we also face uphill battles in several states on gay marriage bans, attacks on labor and measures that would outlaw equal opportunities.

In short, while the top of the ticket appears poised for victory and progressives can expect to increase their numbers in Congress, the ballot initiative landscape will be a mixed bag. We're going to win some. We're going to lose some. That's the tough reality of ballot measures every year, no matter the year.

But before we get into yet another post-election conversation that simply wishes these fights would just go away, let's take a look at some of what we would have conceded this year had we done so: 30,000 children in Montana would continue to go without health care; the Massachusetts state budget would be slashed 40%; Missouri seniors would go without quality home health care options; and Michigan families would be denied the hope and promise of cures for diseases like Parkinson's, juvenile diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.

Instead of allowing our defeats at the ballot box to be an excuse for walking away from these fights let us re-commit ourselves today to developing a ballot measure strategy that works towards advancing progressive policy and protecting our shared values.

Our choice is clear. We can either concede the playing field to the right wing or we can choose today to prepare for the battle ahead.

Yes, we all understand there are way too many measures on the ballot in too many states, and many of them rely on deceiving voters in order to get on the ballot and get passed. There is way too much money spent by donors who hide their involvement and intentions. The language is often confusing and misleading for voters. And some of these issues don't even deserve to be on the ballot. We all understand that - and if we don't - we should try harder to accept this reality check.

But as I travel the country I am often asked by activists, donors and people fighting for progressive change about whether we could put forward a ballot measure to do away with the ballot measure process. In fact, if I had a dime for everyone who has asked me over the last seven years of running the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center I'd be as rich as some of the right wing activists who advance their personal ideology (and pad their pocketbook) through the ballot initiative campaigns.

Here's a response. For one, the idea of taking power out of the hands of voters who don't trust politicians is political suicide. While voters might bemoan ballot measures, public opinion shows that people are not happy with the direction of this country and as a result feel a deep sense of insecurity and anxiety; therefore ballot initiatives create an opening to make sure their priorities are being addressed and their voice is being heard. If we don't truly "get" that, we're the worse off for it.

Secondly, throw up your arms about the existence of the ballot measure process, pound your fists against the wall, but then roll up your sleeves and understand that we don't ask for these fights, but we can and do often defeat the most dangerous ballot measures out there. And we only win by engaging in the process: developing an effective response to the bad measures and pushing forward on our own proactive agenda.

So, here is the good news and the bad news.

1. It could have been worse. If things had gone right for the extremists, there should have been an additional 29 right-wing measures on the ballot, but due to the early organizing by progressives - challenging misleading and deceptive language, scrutinizing fraudulent signatures and doing early education among potential "signers" we were able to reduce the amount of threats. If we had turned away, belittled the initiative process, and chosen to be more motivated by our distaste of the process than our distaste for their wacky ideas, we would be facing a much more difficult landscape on Election Day.

2. While we can't and shouldn't do away with initiatives, we can fix some of the problems. With all this talk of voter registration fraud, the irony is that the weakness of the right is their dependence on illegal, unethical and all too often fraudulent signature gathering to qualify conservative ballot measures. For all those right-wingers up in arms about voter registration fraud, they certainly don't seem to care one iota about the millions of dollars spent to fraudulently qualify ballot measures that alter state constitutions - a more egregious form of fraud then someone who simply signs a voter registration card falsely, but never attempts to vote under that name. But we can and should do more to bring integrity back into the direct democracy process. We can do that be reforming the laws that govern signature gathering and calling out the culprits of abuse. (Visit for more information on the best reforms out there).

3. We can use the tool to advance our priorities. With the victory of six ballot measures in 2006 to increase the minimum wage, which also served a role in providing contrasts between incumbents stuck in the past and candidates who believe in a fair and just economy for all, the minimum wage served as a sea change to show the right wing that we can beat them at their own game. Clean energy in Missouri this year is a pilot for a potential 2010 strategy in multiple states. Understand that progressives' task will always be much harder because we don't organize around the politics of division, fear, prejudice and hate. We have to use the process to advance progressive policy and values and protect peoples' rights. If we do that voters will respond.

4. We can be truth tellers. We must be analytical about the impact of both conservative and progressive ballot measure strategies. Where did they truly help or hurt? Did they increase turnout, did they mobilize an otherwise unmotivated constituency? It is vitally important that we use data to guide our path. Often, poor analysis after the election (conventional wisdom that is wrong, pushed by either insufficient reporting or pundits who do not understand what happened in the states) can be damaging. We must not make false and unsubstantiated claims, and we must hold our colleagues accountable to that standard. Ballot measures are a science, not an art. We need to talk about them in sophisticated ways, based on empirical data and smart analysis.

5. Prepare for 2010 now. The Republican brand is in tatters. While they are in the midst of forming their circular firing squad, they will soon regroup and start firing at us. Part of their regrouping strategy will certainly involve an effort to push their divisive gimmicks on voters and influence midterm elections through ballot initiatives. We need to prepare now. Sometimes the best defense is good offense. We are ending this election cycle with the hope and opportunity for change. We cannot leave ballot measures out of the equation. We can beat them at their own game, but we cannot do that until we give up our grudge about the process, both accept and learn from our loses, take time to celebrate our victories and prepare for the battles ahead.

Ballot Initiative Strategy Center is the nerve center for progressive ballot initiative campaigns across the country. As voters across the country prepare to go to the polls, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center's website,, is the most comprehensive, up to date and user friendly place for information on ballot initiative campaigns.