Conservative efforts to roll back reforms that benefit working families have hit a major snag – the voting public. Citizens in Ohio and Maine are taking advantage of the ballot initiative process in their states to fight back against right-wing legislation rammed through their statehouses this year that aims more to tilt the 2012 elections rather than actually serve any constituents. As record  numbers of voters in some states sign on to petitions to repeal harmful and politically motivated laws, they are sending a clear message, one both reflected in polling and which is resonating across the country: that they will not allow their states to move backwards by stripping workers and voters of fundamental rights.
Ohio’s SB 5, which limits the collective bargaining rights of state employees, proved so divisive in the legislature this year that conservatives could not even get the bill to the Senate floor for a vote without first removing  two opponents from a committee. In the end, as crowds chanted  “shame on you,” the bill passed the chamber by one vote. State groups had indicated at the time that they would counter the legislation with a petition drive to place a repeal on the ballot, and as they have followed through, the public’s response has been overwhelming. About 915,000  signatures calling for repeal of SB 5 were certified out of an astounding 1.3 million gathered — nearly four times  the number needed to qualify for the ballot, and a record for any ballot initiative campaign in the state. Voter discontent also extends beyond SB 5 in Ohio, with poll  after poll  indicating that Ohioans experiencing buyer’s remorse over the course taken by Gov. Kasich after his election last November would vote against him by a double-digit margin  if given the opportunity for a do-over.
Another citizen-led effort at reversing conservative legislative overreach is well underway in Maine. Despite the solid  reputation of Maine’s decades-old system of Election Day Registration (EDR), which allows citizens to register to vote or update their registrations on Election Day itself, the legislature this year voted to eliminate the reform — over the objections of nonpartisan groups like the Maine Town and City Clerks Association and the League of Women Voters of Maine. However, once paperwork was filed to launch a people’s veto campaign, it only took a month for organizers to gather more than 70,000  signatures – about 13,000 more than necessary in order to qualify – and place repeal of the ban on this longstanding practice on the 2011 ballot.
The frustrated public is also going beyond simply holding the line against legislative overreach — in some states, initiatives are providing voters with a chance to bring their state’s fiscal priorities more in line with the values of the public by preventing more devastating cuts. In Colorado, voters will get the chance to weigh in on a proposal — Proposition 103 — that would temporarily raise the sales and income tax to fund education. Though the specific tax proposed in the referendum may not be ideally targeted, the measure has won support from a wide range of groups and fed-up citizens who aim to prevent further devastating cuts and circumvent right-wing opposition to raising revenue. About 142,000  petition signatures were gathered to support the measure, far more than the 86,105 needed to qualify for the ballot. Colorado’s situation is particularly dire given that  the state has already cut K-12 funding by almost $600 million over the past three years alone and spending per college student has been cut nearly in half over the past decade. As Cindy Stevenson, superintendent of the state’s largest school district, said , “If Proposition 103 doesn’t pass, we will be looking at another $35 million in cuts. We’re beyond the bone.”
As conservatives continue to run roughshod over the will of the public and pass legislation catered more toward partisan gain, the ballot initiative process in many states can be an invaluable tool for voters interested in having their voices heard directly. Used wisely, it can encourage legislators to think twice about an agenda that values campaign donors over constituents. For more information on progressive ballot initiative strategies, please see the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) at www.ballot.org .
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