Ballot initiatives allow people to bypass right-wing politicians in this election, which is why the right wants to abolish them


By Sarah Anderson | –

( – This fall, in the run-up to the midterm elections, a group of Catholic nuns, Protestant ministers and other religious leaders caravanned through South Dakota on what they called a “Love Thy Neighbor Tour.”

Citizen-led initiatives scored big victories in the midterm elections. But now this form of direct democracy is under attack.

They stopped at grocery stores, soup kitchens, senior centers, libraries and other community gathering places to engage in conversations about health insurance. They heard story after story from family, friends and neighbors who are struggling to pay for quality health care.

The goal of this tour: build support for a ballot initiative to help more South Dakotans get the care they need.

Through such initiatives, citizens can avoid elected officials who have become disconnected from their constituents.

In this year’s election, voters in more than 30 states participate in this form of direct democracy. these voters they enshrined abortion rights in states like Michigan, funded universal pre-K and child care in New Mexico, and cracked down on medical debt in Arizona.

In South Dakota, the “Love Thy Neighbor” campaign won big. By a margin of 56 to 44, voters approved a proposal to force their state government to expand Medicaid eligibility, a move that will help an estimated 42,500 working-class people get care

These people earn too much to qualify for the state’s existing Medicaid program, but too little to access private insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Since 2010, the federal government has covered 90 percent of the costs when states expand Medicaid, but political leaders in South Dakota and 11 other states have refused to do so.

This is not the first time South Dakotans have used effective town-to-town organizing and ballot initiative strategies for the good of their neighbors.

In 2016, a bipartisan coalition with strong support from the religious community achieved an incredible victory against financial predators, earning 76 percent support for a ballot measure to impose a 36 percent interest rate cap on payday loans. Previously, those rates had averaged about 600 percent in South Dakota, trapping many low-income families in downward spirals of debt.

In this midterm election season, Nebraska offers another inspiring example of citizen action to avoid disengaged politicians.

For 13 years, Republicans in Congress have blocked efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, leaving it stuck at $7.25 since 2009. Nebraska’s entire congressional delegation, all Republicans, have consistently opposed minimum wage increases. Rep. Adrian Smith, for example, recently attacked President Biden’s $15 federal minimum proposal as “economically detrimental.”

Nebraskans see the matter differently.

Voters approved raising the state minimum wage to the same level Biden proposed — $15 an hour — by 2026. The measure, which passed with 58 percent supportwill mean bigger paychecks by about 150,000 Nebraskans.

Ballot measures like these can send a healthy wake-up call to political leaders who are not listening to their constituents. But certain special interests, especially those with deep pockets and motivated by limited profit motives, don’t necessarily want ordinary Americans to be heard.

State legislatures across the country have seen a flurry of bills aimed at restricting or eliminating the ballot measure process. According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Centerthe number of such bills increased 500 percent between 2017 and 2021. Dozens more were introduced in 2022, including efforts to raise the threshold for passing a ballot measure beyond a simple majority vote.

The purpose of these restrictions? Undermine the will of the people.

At a time when more and more Americans are concerned about the future of our democracy, we should applaud the advocates in South Dakota, Nebraska and elsewhere who are engaging their fellow citizens in political decisions that affect their lives.

We need more democracy. Not less.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits at the Institute for Policy Studies.


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