Voting Ballot Propositions
In some states, citizens can petition for and vote on new statutes or constitutional amendments called ballot measures. Rules for how these citizen-driven initiatives appear on the ballot vary from state to state.
Local newspapers play a critical role in explaining these proposals to voters. They can also help shape how voters respond to them.
Voters across the country are facing a wide range of ballot measures in their local elections, including proposals to allow private casinos and establish a mail-in voting system. In New York, voters will also weigh in on whether to limit the ability of small city school districts to borrow money, and on a policy that would guarantee residents the right to clean air and water.
These measures, known as ballot propositions, offer voters a direct form of democracy that circumvents state legislatures and often has profound impacts on American politics and society. In recent years, the number of ballot initiatives enacted by citizens has surged in 38 states that allow them. These citizen legislative initiatives are a powerful force in progressive politics, re-energizing grassroots voters and contributing to the renaissance of direct democracy.
Despite their prominence and the growing popularity of direct democracy, they face a number of serious challenges. For example, the way ballot questions are written can influence how voters react to them. One study found that when a tax increase was described as an additional “one cent per dollar,” people were twice as likely to support it as when it was framed as a 22 percent increase. In addition, ballot initiatives are often obscure and difficult to understand. This disenfranchises many voters who do not take the time to research them.
New York voters will decide on four ballot propositions this fall — one statewide and three city-specific. They’ll be asked to approve an environmental bond measure, establish a racial equity office and define the cost of living.
Proposal number 1 would allow the state to borrow up to $4.2 billion for specific projects like sewage treatment plants and open space land preservation. It’s the first environmental bond measure in 26 years. And it would boost spending by an estimated 12% in Albany over the next decade.
But the proposal hasn’t generated much public attention, and so far no organized opposition. The state Republican Party hasn’t publicly weighed in on it, and the Empire Center, an Albany-based think tank that closely monitors state fiscal policy, hasn’t raised any red flags.
Researchers are trying to understand why people vote for or against propositions. They’re studying ballot initiatives put forward by state legislators and citizen-initiated petitions. For two experiments, they ask participants to read descriptions of ballot measures that appeared on real ballots in past elections. They find that people are more likely to support a ballot measure when it’s described as a small increase in taxes than when it’s presented as a large tax hike. That’s because the latter seems bigger and a lot more expensive.
The way ballot measures are worded and framed can affect how they perform at the polls. In an experiment, participants recruited on Amazon Mechanical Turk read hypothetical ballot measures that were either framed as an additional “one cent per dollar” or as a 22 percent tax increase and indicated whether they would support them. The results suggest that voters are more likely to approve ballot measures when they’re framed as a smaller increase.
States determine how ballots are structured and what criteria must be met for a measure to appear on the ballot. These procedures can have profound effects on the overall election process. For example, a proposal that requires that all statewide constitutional amendments must pass with 60% of the vote has the potential to radically limit ballot initiatives.
This year’s elections will feature 133 state and local ballot measures, most of which were placed on the ballot by legislative bodies. However, some are being proposed by citizens via citizen-initiated petitions. Additionally, lawmakers in a few states are seeking to change the ballot measure process itself. For instance, Ohio Republicans are trying to ram a resolution through the lame duck session that would require that ballot measures must win 60% of the vote in order to pass.