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This fall, Michigan voters will have a say on three crucial ballot initiatives that could change the state’s political landscape in a drastic way. Proposal 1 would change term limit requirements for state legislators and establish financial disclosure requirements. Proposal 2 would greatly expand voting rights and work to safeguard democracy. And the highly contested Proposal 3 would enshrine reproductive freedom in the state constitution. All three proposals would undoubtedly be progressive wins, and I encourage everyone to vote for these common-sense measures. 

When it comes to getting political goals accomplished, ballot initiatives often reign supreme, especially for progressive issues. What else could have prevented the deep red Kansas legislature from passing restrictions on reproductive freedom? How else would states like Nebraska, South Dakota and Arkansas have achieved minimum wage hikes that put the federal minimum wage to shame? Progressive ballot initiatives, in states ranging from deep blue to deep red, often have astounding levels of success, producing laws that otherwise would not have had a chance of passing through traditional legislation.   

Ballot initiatives are an effective tool for progressives to pass popular legislation, and Michigan’s three proposals this year exemplify why that’s the case. Though both parties use ballot initiatives to pass policies they support, they have been disproportionately successful for progressives. 

One of the main reasons that ballot initiatives are such a positive is that they are simply the most representative and equitable way for making new policy into law. It is well known that Congress and state legislatures often act way outside of public opinion, especially on key issues for progressives. Wide majorities of voters support the progressive stance on issues including reproductive freedom, marijuana legalization, voting rights and much more. Yet if you analyze the support for these measures in legislative bodies, and compare them to the constituents they represent, they are way out of sync. Ballot initiatives rectify this issue. 

Initiatives are also equitable in that they work around egregious gerrymandering, which itself greatly distorts the line between public opinion and the public’s representatives. Take Wisconsin, a purple state. Republicans, through relentless partisan gerrymandering, have managed to find themselves on the verge of a legislative supermajority despite this fact. The fact that a battleground state, which voted for Biden in the last election, could have a veto-proof Republican majority in its state legislature is an affront to democracy and an insult to voters. Once again, ballot initiatives would bypass this fact, as the partisan advantages of gerrymandering disappear in state-wide elections, such as the election for governor.

It is true that we live in a representative democracy, one in which politicians must go against their constituents’ wishes for the interests of the country at times. Take, for example, Republican members of Congress who rebuffed calls from their deep red constituents to object to electors in the 2020 election. The problem, of course, is that our democracy is not actually all that representative. The country is dominated by minority rule through the filibuster, run by a dysfunctional Congress that has long had an approval rating so abysmal it’s almost hard to fathom and allows the aforementioned gerrymandering to define our electoral process. Ballot initiatives are the easiest way for voters to express their legislative priorities and see them enacted into law. 

Ballot initiatives are also good in that they inspire nuanced thought over specific issues and provide an avenue for voters to reject the party line on issues they disagree with without having to vote for the opposing party and take down their party as a whole. Ballot initiatives, though often supported by one party more than the other, are not run on a party-affiliated line. By taking away the cue of (D) or (R), voters are left to actually dig deeper into the proposal and see what it’s about. 

They empower voters to be “mavericks” of sorts. A voter in Arkansas who supports a living wage and the legalization of marijuana but is otherwise conservative does not have to sacrifice one set of beliefs for the other. The more proposals put to the combined 50 states there are, the more nuanced and representative policymaking becomes.

Though ballot initiatives can be an inspiring relief from traditional aspects of governance, the specific requirements varying by state can result in varying levels of that relief. When it comes to getting initiatives on the ballot and passed, some states are more restrictive than others. The main difference is between states with direct and indirect initiatives. In direct initiative states, proposals that qualify go directly to the ballot. In indirect initiative states, however, varying levels of action are required by the state legislature to allow them on the ballot, providing opportunities to thwart the will of the people. Some states can outright deny the measure, and others require additional signature requirements after legislative consideration. In 24 states, voters are left entirely out of the process, with no mechanism for citizen-initiated ballot measures. Michigan is a direct initiative state, paving a pathway for voters dissatisfied with the legislature to get policy passed, obstructionists in Lansing be damned. 

Moreover, Michigan’s process should be a leading example for states across the country in that it requires only a simple majority for passage. Many on the right have long sought to stifle progressive ballot initiatives, often by attempting to make it so that initiatives require 60% of votes to pass. Michigan does not allow this minority rule to take place. 

The type of measures on the ballot matter, too. Measures are ideal for issues that would otherwise be unlikely to see improvement through traditional legislating. They are best when used for matters that are not overly complex, and that voters are likely to already feel passionate about. And given the level of grassroots work needed to get measures on the ballot, they should be substantial in nature. 

Michigan’s initiatives this fall do a pretty good job at checking these boxes. Voting rights, reproductive freedom and increased transparency for politicians are all popular progressive measures that have polled well in the state. They are also ones that, given the current conservative legislative makeup of the state, would be unlikely to otherwise pass. Proposals 2 and 3 address issues that voters nationwide are extremely passionate about, and, if passed, would thrust the Michigan political landscape forward in a progressive way.

Ballot initiatives give power to the people, many of whom feel they have given away too much power to an elite few. They promote core tenets of democracy, like representation and majority rule. They allow for progress to be made on issues for which progress would otherwise be nearly impossible. Done right, they provide straightforward avenues for change, free from legislative delays, to be made on issues that are desired by the public but otherwise would not happen. In times of political peril and inaction such as these, states nationwide should follow Michigan’s lead, and adopt processes for direct democracy.

Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist who can be reached at dehesano@umich.edu.