Democracy on the Ballot

Over 145 million Americans voted last Tuesday amidst a COVID-19 pandemic that continues to take thousands of lives, demonstrating a deep commitment to our democracy. While all attention has been on the tight race between Biden and Trump for President, voters also decided a number of important democracy-related issues, including redistricting reform, ranked choice voting, campaign finance reform, a citizenship voting requirement, and more were considered and voted on in the states with varying results.

The pandemic prevented many canvassers from reaching the necessary threshold of signatures needed to get on ballots, so expect more ballot measures than usual during the 2022 midterms.

Independent Redistricting

The 2020 U.S. Census was completed last month, so states will begin the arduous process of redrawing district lines next year. For states with Democratic or Republican trifectas, this likely means gerrymandering to further the dominant party's control, unless independent redistricting commissions or other processes have been set up.

Heading into this election, seven states had independent citizen redistricting commissions with partisan balance and the authority to draw maps without legislative approval (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Washington), five of which were enacted in 2018.

On Tuesday, voters in Missouri and Virginia considered ballot measures on whether or not to be the next states to take this route to drawing fair district lines.

This year, two-thirds of Virginia voters overwhelming approved a constitutional amendment to add their state to the list of those taking this route to draw fair district lines. Virginia's commission of eight citizens and eight legislators will be equally split among party lines, and if a decision on the drawing of maps cannot be reached, the state Supreme Court will intervene.

In Missouri, voters had overwhelmingly approved a measure in 2018 known as "Clean Missouri" that would have given an independent demographer the power to draw House and Senate districts that are competitive and fair. But Republicans disliked this idea, so they proposed a ballot measure that would undo those changes and hand the power to draw maps back to legislators, and paired it with a popular, but small, reduction in contribution limits. The gambit worked, and the measure passed with 51 percent of the vote on Tuesday.

Clean Missouri, the group that led the successful 2018 effort, campaigned against the Republican-backed measure, describing it as "deceptive, deceitful, and all about protecting incumbent politicians in rigged, super-safe districts where voters can't hold them accountable."

New Jersey voters approved a related ballot measure to change the state constitution so that the redistricting process can be delayed by two years if the state does not receive the census results by February 15. New Jersey's 40 Senate and 80 Assembly seats are on the ballot in 2021, so the measure was proposed to promote clarity for voters.

Citizenship Requirement for Voting

Voters in Alabama, Colorado, and Florida passed measures that that amend their state constitutions to say that "only citizens" over 18 can vote, despite state and federal laws already barring noncitizen voting. The ballot measures are part of a nationwide effort by the Florida-based nonprofit Citizen Voters Inc. and appear to be strategically designed to draw out conservative voters to the polls.

One result of the measure's passage in Colorado, however, is to effectively repeal a recent state law allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries.

John Loudon, director of Citizen Voters Inc. registered the nonprofit with the IRS in 2018. Loudon and his wife Gina are the face of the movement and coincidently are friendly members of Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club, The Washington Post reported.

Citizen Voters Inc. brought in millions in 2019, because public records examined by The Washington Post show it gave Florida Citizen Voters, the political committee behind the Florida measure, $4.7 million. Citizen Voters Inc.'s exact 2019 revenue will not be disclosed for weeks when IRS filings for that year are due.

Ranked Choice Voting

Voters in Alaska and Massachusetts defeated ballot measures last Tuesday that would have made them the next state after Maine to enact a ranked choice voting system. However, local ranked choice voting measures passed in five cities in California, Minnesota, and Colorado.

Instead of casting a vote for one of the candidates on a ballot, ranked choice voting allows you to rank them from most preferred to least preferred. If no candidate gets a majority, the votes for the candidate with the fewest votes are redistributed to their second choice, and so on, until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Proponents of this system argue that it eliminates the spoiler effect of minor party or independent candidates and creates opportunities for the representation of historically underrepresented groups, while at the same time promoting majority support.

Campaign Finance Limits

Over 75 percent of Oregon voters took a step toward ending the unlimited flow of money to political campaigns Tuesday by passing Ballot Measure 107, which amends  the state constitution to allow for laws and voter initiatives that would require disclosure of and limits on political contributions and spending for all levels of government.

State lawmakers in Salem will now take up the issue in the 2021 legislative session. Up until now, Oregon is one of the few states to have no limits on campaign spending or contributions.

"It's time for the Legislature to either step up and come up with a regime that's gonna get big money out of politics and allow grassroots donors to be a solution, or we go to the ballot in 2022," Jason Kafoury of the group Honest Elections Oregon that campaigned for the measure told OPB.

National Popular Vote Compact Grows 

Colorado voters have narrowly decided to join the National Popular Vote Compact (NPVC). The Compact seeks to provide an alternative to the "winner-take-all" laws in the states where all the electoral college votes go to the candidate that wins the state's popular vote. This system results in unequal representation and the ignoring of millions of voters by Presidential candidates.

Alternatively, the NPVC "will guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia," and "that every vote, in every state, will matter in every presidential election," according to the NPVC website.

In addition to Colorado, California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington have joined the NPVC. Those 16 states account for 196 electoral votes out of the 270 needed for the compact to go into effect.

Other Measures

In addition:

  • Arkansas voters rejected an attempt to amend the state constitution to make it harder to get voter initiatives on the ballot and require a three-fifths supermajority for the legislature to refer a constitutional amendment to the voters.
  • California voters defeated a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries and special elections.
  • Florida voters defeated a measure to require constitutional amendments be passed twice.
  • Missouri voters turned down a proposal to limit service in the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor and attorney general to two terms in one's lifetime was defeated.
  • Nevada voters approved a proposal to enshrine a Voters' Bill of Rights enacted by statute in 2003 in the state constitution.
  • Utah voters passed a proposal to use gender neutral language in the state constitution.
David Armiak

David Armiak is research director with the Center for Media and Democracy. David joined CMD in 2015, has conducted extensive investigations on dark money, corporate corruption, and right-wing networks, and is responsible for filing and analyzing hundreds of public records requests every year. David has a strong research interest in social movements and political power, and has delivered many talks on the subject.