From local term limits to state action like California’s Prop 64 that legalized marijuana, the voice of the people through direct measure has significantly impacted U.S. public policy.
Oftentimes, these referenda are localized or regionalized, which keeps them outside the peripheral of the mainstream media. But this doesn’t detract from their impact nor does the nature of ballot initiatives mimic our European counterparts and across the globe.
Here in America, we see states and localities voting on hundreds of referenda each election cycle. As noted, issues range from marriage equality to tax policies, or even alcohol regulations and they continue a narrative grounded in the idea of resettling previously determined policies due to changing landscapes.
Interestingly enough, the process of ballot initiatives and referenda was created on our side of the pond by the 19th Century Progressive Movement. Initially, it was a simple concept used to fight back against the powerful timber, railroad, and mining interests. But it has developed into expensive, powerful, and complicated campaigns throughout all corners of America. Now, they have a tendency to be generally volatile with voter tendencies changing on a whim.
Due to these unpredictable behavioral patterns, history has shown us that only a tactful measure will succeed in defining the terms of the narrative to achieve success.
A comparable European example for any casual observer of grassroots movements must look no further than the impact and scope of the Brexit referendum. It was quite compelling that 51.9 percent of the participating electorate in the United Kingdom voted last year to leave the European Union in March of 2019.
The merits and impact of Brexit are best left to other commentary, but the nature of the referendum and its characteristics are worthy of further exploration. The campaign group “Vote Leave” and other supporters of leaving the EU mustered more than 17 million voters to reject the EU while “Britain Stronger in Europe” rallied some 16 million people to remain. Change defeated the status quo.
These initiatives are extremely high stakes vehicles that are mechanisms to prompt dramatic change. They should be crafted in a way that’s easily understandable to the average citizen, and in plain language describe what policy change will come as a result of the measure.
Ballot initiatives are an inherently grassroots tool that are often overlooked in the United States, as it’s not a tool utilized at the federal level. As grassroots numbers and power continues to grow in the United States and abroad, ballot initiatives will become more mainstream tools that will be leveraged by trade associations, non-profit organizations, and corporations to affect policy outcomes.
Ballot initiatives are also unique in that they provide a public stamp of approval — unlike that of a vote from elected officials who have the added layer of proxy as a means of representative democracy.
Legislation and regulations are already tough to reverse, but it’s even harder to reverse the outcome of a referendum. Who wants to be seen as fighting the will of the people? Political winds may shift as time progresses, but an affirmative vote for something by the electorate has timeless and significant weight that can rarely be reversed.
Gerry Gunster is the chief executive officer of Gunster Strategies where he provides strategic counsel and conducts issue advocacy for clients, which include Fortune 500 companies, leading trade associations, and global organizations.
Joshua Habursky is director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, and adjunct professor at West Virginia University.