Which means that Tuesday, voters in 35 states are voting on 157 ballot initiatives. Seventy-four of those are proposals the voters themselves put on the ballot, via petition. That is the most citizen initiatives in a decade. And a majority of those would implement progressive policies: minimum wage increases, gun control, marijuana legalization, charter schools.
Some of the notable progressive ballot initiatives this November:
- Voters in nine states will vote on whether to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational uses — the most ballot initiatives on one issue since 2004, when 11 states had ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage.
- Voters in four states — Maine, Colorado, Arizona and Washington — will vote on whether to increase their state's minimum wage. Voters in Arizona and Washington will also vote on whether to mandate paid sick leave.
- Voters in Oregon, Maine and California will decide whether to increase or keep taxes on some of their state's top earners and corporations.
- Voters in a record three states — Maine, Nevada and California — will vote on whether to expand background checks, a moment that could define the narrative around gun-control policy at the state level. (When put to the voters, the idea is currently 1-for-1: Washington state became the first state in recent history to do it when voters approved universal background checks in 2014.)
- Voters in South Dakota, Washington, California and Missouri all have some kind of campaign finance reform initiative on the ballot.
As the federal government's productivity stalls and people's distrust in government rises, ballot initiatives are becoming big business. Hundreds of millions of dollars are expected to be spent this year on them. In 2012, an estimated $800 million was spent on ballot initiatives; this year, an estimated $400 million has been spent in California alone.
The ballot-measure-as-a-way-around-government strategy was dominated by conservatives in the 1990s and 2000s. That is when — you guessed it — Democrats controlled much of state government. But then Republicans started winning state legislatures.
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center was formed in 1999 to champion progressive causes. It and other progressive groups kicked into high gear after the 2010 Republican tea party wave turned many districts red.
"This is a counterweight to conservative control of the state governments," said Justine Sarver, the center's executive director.
There is some evidence to suggest the left's put-it-to-the-voters strategy is working, even helping drive the national conversation on some issues.
When put to the voters, minimum wage increases have won all but twice over the past 20 years. Right around the time states started legalizing same-sex marriage by ballot initiative, public opinion swung dramatically in favor of it. And in 2015, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the nation. Much of this happened while Republicans controlled a majority of state legislatures.
Progressive ballot initiatives might be victims of their own success, though. GOP-led state legislatures have started to try to thwart them — whether by passing laws to prevent municipalities from changing policy, or by voting to, say, raise the minimum wage but not by nearly as much as progressive groups would like.
And it's not like all initiatives before voters this November favor liberal policy.
In South Dakota, progressives are trying to cap payday lending interest rates via ballot initiative, but the payday lending industry filed a countermeasure.
In California, there are dueling propositions on the death penalty: One to repeal it, one to speed up executions. And Nebraskans will vote on a referendum, largely funded by the state's Republican governor, on whether to reinstate the death penalty after lawmakers repealed it last year.
In Missouri, the GOP-controlled legislature will put to voters a constitutional amendment to instate voter ID requirements, which would be a symbolically important win for voter ID proponents.
But most of the action is coming from the left, as progressives use ballot initiatives to try to fundamentally change state policy by bypassing Republican government. And so far, it's been working.
Correction: An infographic detailing four states voting on health care issues has been corrected. Only Colorado is voting on universal health care.