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The Trailer: How grass roots ballot initiatives got caught up in the voting wars

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In this edition: Who's afraid of ballot initiatives, how Texas's biggest county is grappling with the state's new voting law, and what the heck is happening in Laredo.

Our inbox is always open to FBI insiders, and this is The Trailer.

First came the right-to-work vote in 2018, when a union-backed ballot measure undid one of the Missouri's GOP's first victories after it swept the 2016 elections. Then came the 2020 vote on Medicaid expansion: a seven-point victory for a ballot measure that put a policy conservatives had resisted for a decade into the state constitution. 

“The threshold is too low,” state Rep. Mike Henderson (R) told the House Elections Committee in Jefferson City last week, arguing for a resolution that would require ballot initiative campaigners to get more signatures, from more rural areas, and require them to win a supermajority from voters if they wanted to work around the legislature. “The Missouri Constitution is a living document, but it's not, and should not be, an ever-expanding document.”

The same argument is being made in a number of Republican-run states, from Missouri to South Dakota to Florida, where liberal donors and activists have passed ballot measures opposed by conservatives. Worries about crusading out-of-state donors, or city dwellers outvoting rural conservatives, have led to new restrictions on ballot initiatives — who can fund them, how to pass them and even what font size should be used on the petitions.

“It's certainly the most ballot measures we've ever seen referred to curtail ballot measure access,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the liberal Fairness Project, which launched a $5 million effort last year to battle changes to the initiative process. “We have seen one per cycle, basically, and now we've already got six.” (Some changes can go through legislatures, while some start with legislators but must be approved by voters.)

The momentum to reel in ballot initiatives surged last year, after Republicans processed what had just happened in the 2020 elections. In deep-red Mississippi and South Dakota, liberal groups scored wins on issues like marijuana legalization; in swing states like Wisconsin, Republicans began to ask whether wealthy donors who handed out election-management grants to urban counties had skewed races toward the Democrats. 

In Missouri, Republicans resisted implementing the 2020 Medicaid expansion, often arguing that the “no” vote in rural counties was overwhelmed by liberal votes from places like St. Louis and Kansas City, suggesting that carried more weight. That frustration carried over into the debate over ballot initiatives, with legislators at last week’s hearing suggesting that the current law, which requires petitioners to hit a signature thresholds in just five of the state’s eight congressional districts, too easily allowed petitioners to get signatures from liberal areas.

“Do you think that bingo and marijuana belong on a constitution? I do not,” state Rep. Jeff Coleman said last week. “What happens when outside influencers come into our state and decide that they're going to change our constitution? They have nothing to do with our state other than the fact that they want to change what we're doing as our citizenry in the state of Missouri.”

In Idaho, where another Medicaid expansion ballot measure had succeeded over Republican opposition, legislators doubled the number of districts in which petitioners had to get their signatures. The state Supreme Court later struck that down, but other states are moving ahead with ballot initiatives that would add more restrictions on the process. 

In Arkansas, an amendment heading to voters in November would raise the threshold for passing ballot initiatives — or changing the constitution — from 50 percent to 60 percent. In South Dakota, voters will decide this summer whether to require the same 60 percent supermajority for anything that increases taxes or deals with more than $10 million in state appropriations. That, if put in place before 2020, would have stopped the passage of marijuana legalization measures that opponents eventually blocked in the courts.

Legislators looking to rein in the initiative process often point to Florida, where in 2006 voters raised the threshold for ballot measure passage from a simple majority to 60 percent of the vote. A number of liberal-backed initiatives have cracked that threshold, and after 2020, Republicans explored other limits to the system. Last year, a bill introduced by state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R) capped donations to initiative campaigns at $3,000.

“My thought was if you put a barrier on the front end, one that limits the financial contributions, that would cut out the bulk of this out-of-state money,” Rodrigues said in an interview. “It would ensure that the initiative process was being utilized by the citizens from whom it was intended.”

In Utah, where voters narrowly backed redistricting and marijuana measures in 2018, state Rep. Jordan Teuscher (R) was successful in winning approval for legislation to regulate paid signature-gathering — a response, he said in an interview, to many voters feeling misled when they realized what they'd signed. Paid signature gatherers need to identify themselves as such, and the groups that hired them would pay them an hourly wage, not a fee for each signature they turned in. 

“If you actually follow the money on the Medicaid or medical marijuana initiatives, a lot of outside money poured into Utah to try and change people's perceptions,” Teuscher said. “Grass-roots, citizen-led initiatives are not the problem. If we want to maintain the great quality of life we have in Utah, we cannot allow outside groups to invade our state and use their money to change our laws.”

Liberal ballot measure campaigners have attacked the new laws from multiple angles, from lawsuits to a $5 million “Ballot Measure Rescue campaign” organized by the Fairness Project, based in Washington and founded seven years ago. Organizers don’t deny that out-of-state money flows into the campaigns, but they point out that it flows both ways. At this month’s hearings in Missouri, the outnumbered Democrats pointed out that Republicans were taking testimony, and advice, from two Florida-based think tanks run by the same conservative activists, the Opportunity Solutions Project and Foundation for Government Accountability.  

“People in Arkansas have these issues that will never get through the General Assembly and we get them on the ballot and they pass it,” said David Crouch, an Arkansas attorney who’s helped organize minimum-wage and other ballot measure campaigns in the state. “Sure, we get money from out of state. But Sarah Sanders is running for governor, and how much of her $15 million comes from out of state?”

Frustration with direct democracy, and with ways that a small number of voters can put measures on the ballot, can be bipartisan. In California, the failure of last year's effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) inspired Democrats, who hold a legislative supermajority, to debate new limits on the 109-year-old process. Two weeks ago, state Sen. Josh Newman (D), who was recalled by Orange County voters in 2018 and returned to office in 2020, introduced a constitutional amendment to replace the current system — a ballot that asked if an incumbent should be recalled, then which alternative candidate should be the replacement. 

Instead, a recalled governor would be replaced by the lieutenant governor; replacements for other statewide elected officials would be picked by the governor; and if voters removed a state legislator, they'd pick the replacement in a separate, later special election. If that had been how last year’s recall worked — or the 2003 recall that put Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s office — Democrats never would have been at risk of losing power.

“The system in its current form offers bad actors an incentive to target an elected official with whom they disagree and to have the official replaced by someone who otherwise would not enjoy the support of a majority of voters,” Newman explained in a statement. “Recall in California has become a partisan circus.”

Reading list

“The long slide: Inside Biden’s declining popularity as he struggles with multiple crises,” by Ashley Parker, Tyler Pager and Sean Sullivan

How withdrawing from Afghanistan changed everything.

“How Democrats can win in White working-class districts,” by Robin A. Johnson

The tactics that have — so far — rescued rural Democrats.

“Virginia Senate Democrats push back on GOP proposals aimed at tightening voting laws,” by Laura Vozzella and Gregory S. Schneider

New legislature, new voting wars.

“The Republican parallel universe strategy,” by Sarah Longwell

Lessons for Democrats from some very rough focus groups.

“Biden leaves Democrats hanging as midterms burst into full swing,” by Edward Isaac-Dovere

How hard is it for the Democrats' Senate campaign chairman to get a White House meeting? You'd be surprised.

“House GOP plots policy agenda for 2022 midterm elections — with help from architect of 1994 plan,” by Jeff Stein and Laura Meckler

It’s Newt.

“GOP considers more ruthless redistricting,” by Ally Mutnik

The only time you'll hear red-state Republicans speak jealously about Illinois.

Ad watch

Gibbons for Ohio, “Pay.” After putting millions of his own dollars into TV buys for the right to replace Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mike Gibbons has watched other would-be outsider Republican candidates — car dealer Bernie Moreno, author J.D. Vance — battle for his lane. Gibbons starts this spot by talking about inflation, prescribing a combination of tax cuts, term limits and “rebuild[ing] America's supply chain,” and emphasizing just how much he dislikes establishment politics. “Washington has cost us enough,” he says. “Let's make them pay.”

Dolan for Ohio, “Cold War.” Ohio state Sen. Matt Dolan (R) has separated himself from the field of pro-Trump Republicans in the state's U.S. Senate race by criticizing Trump's “lies” about the 2020 election. (Trump has returned the favor by calling Dolan a “RINO,” or Republican in name only.) Dolan's first ad, which he's spending $1.7 million to put on TV, shows him in two factories, promising to prevent “Communist China” from costing Americans more manufacturing jobs. “Washington has caused this,” he says, “and Joe Biden's weakness makes it even worse.”

Lauren Boebert for Congress, “Corrupt Coram.” Colorado state Sen. Don Coram is challenging Boebert in the Republican primary over her effectiveness as a legislator and her arguments with Democrats. Boebert's first radio attack ad, scripted as a conversation between two disgusted voters, accuses Coram of corruption for working to legalize hemp cultivation and investing in a cultivation business. The ad suggests that Coram made millions from the business; the senator told Colorado Politics that he'd only had a minority share in the business, it had folded, and the ad overestimated how much land it owned for growing by 2,500 percent.

Kristi for Governor, “Protecting Girls' Sports.” South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) has a primary challenger this year, who's cited, as one reason for running, her veto of a 2021 bill that would have banned transgender women from playing women's sports. This ad, which ran outside the state to reach donors in the other 49 states, went up a month after Noem rolled out new transgender sports ban legislation, without the potential legal problems she saw in the version she vetoed. “Noem has been protecting girls' sports for years, and never backed down,” a narrator says. A quick montage of Noem clips includes one from an appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” though her March 2021 appearance on that show was panned by conservatives who wanted her to sign the first sports bill.

SEAL PAC, “Defeat Nancy Pelosi.” Another spot for a national audience, running on Fox News but not in individual congressional districts, this promotes six Navy SEALs running for House seats in 2022 with black-and-white images of them in uniform and descriptions of where they're running. “These former Navy SEALs have protected America from enemies all over the world,” a narrator says. “Now they have one great threat left to defeat.” The House speaker's face, in full color, comes on-screen. “Join them.”

Poll watch

Presidential job approval (Gallup, 811 adults)

Approve: 40% (-3 since December)
Disapprove: 56% (+5)

Biden's long downward slide since last summer continues with Gallup's latest monthly numbers. Since the end of last year, his numbers ticked up marginally with self-identified Democrats, to 82 percent. That improvement was erased by Biden's collapsing support from independents, with a record low of 33 percent now saying they approve of the job he's doing. That's down 28 points since the start of his presidency, and no group of voters has moved more dramatically — the gap between Biden's support from Democrats and Republicans was larger, over the course of the year, than partisan views about Donald Trump at this point in his presidency.

How would you rate Joe Biden on whether he has the mental and physical health to be president? (NBC News, 1,000 adults)

Very good: 18%
Good: 15%
Fair: 16%
Poor: 9%
Very poor: 41%

This is the first time NBC News's polling team (Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies) has asked about Biden's basic fitness for office since he won the presidency. During the 2020 campaign, polls that asked voters this question about both Biden and Trump usually found very similar ratings overall, with unsurprising partisan slants — the vast majority of Democrats considering Trump unfit, the vast majority of Republicans saying so of Biden. That's continued into 2022, but most independents now question Biden's fitness, and have powered Biden's decline on other metrics. Since January 2021, the share of adults calling Biden “likable” has dropped by 15 points; so has confidence in his “ability to handle a crisis.”

New Hampshire U.S. Senate (St. Anselm, 1,215 registered voters)

Maggie Hassan (D): 43%
Don Bolduc (R): 36%
Someone else/unsure: 22%

Maggie Hassan (D): 41%
Chuck Morse (R): 27%
Someone else/unsure: 32%

Maggie Hassan (D): 42%
Kevin Smith (R): 24%
Someone else/unsure: 34%

As the pollster explains in an accompanying memo, Hassan got breathing room for her 2022 reelection campaign when Gov. Chris Sununu (R) decided not to challenge her. (In an interview with David Drucker this week, Sununu said he was “close” to running, before deciding he'd only be a “roadblock” if elected to the Senate with Joe Biden in the White House.) Hassan only barely won in 2016, her approval rating is underwater and she polls no better than 43 percent against any of the Republicans actually running. But she leads all of them, with between a fifth and a third of voters having no opinion of their choices or pining for a third choice.

On the trail

On March 1, Texas will hold the first primaries of 2022 — and the first since Republicans in Austin passed a package of new restrictions on ballot access. In the state’s most populous counties, election officials say they're dealing with a mess, with a combination of supply chain shortages and new registration requirements leading to thousands of rejected forms.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat elected to the county's top executive position in 2018, said this week that mail ballot applications were being rejected at seven times the rate they were rejected two years ago. She talked to The Trailer about what that means.

The Trailer: What kind of problems are people having with these applications that are new to you this year?

Lina Hidalgo: Before you didn't need to submit your Social Security number with the form, and now you do. Some people are leaving that blank. They don't feel comfortable with it. Seniors are told all the time not to share sensitive information like that because there's always the threat of identity theft, and then here they are, being asked for a Social Security number. 

The other thing we're seeing is people who registered with one number giving another number now. Before the new law was passed, you could have registered exclusively with your driver's license. Now you have a form asking for your Social Security number. Maybe you fill that out, because you don't remember that when you registered to vote, you used a driver's license number. Well, that would be a mismatch in our system and it would be flagged for rejection. Right now, 35 percent of the applications we're receiving are being flagged for rejection.

TT: How many applications are we talking about?

LH: If we have about the same number of vote-by-mail applications as we had in 2018, the last midterm election — this would be a conservative estimate, because the electorate has grown —  we would end up flagging 27,500 applications. Harris County is committed to helping people vote, and we're willing to put resources into this. We're calling everybody we can who submits an application for a mail ballot that is flagged for rejection. So some people don't write their phone number or contact information, and we can't reach them. If they simply didn't put down an ID number because they were scared to, we have to reject the form and ask you to submit it again. My elections administrator says that we have the information we need on about half of the ballot applications that we reject. 

So, let's say 13,000 or 14,000 people are going to have to resubmit. Who's going to do that, right? Usually, the folks that ask for a mail ballot are really busy people who can't vote in person, much less jump through multiple hoops to try to send in a mail ballot.

TT: What happens when the county contacts people with flawed applications?

LH: The first thing we do is to try to call people. We have a call line also where we receive phone calls in four languages and we have access to interpreters. There's over a hundred languages spoken here in Harris County. We try to accommodate that, and we try to get the clear translation, so we can call and say: Hey, you registered with your driver's license number, but you provided your Social Security number, so your form got flagged. 

TT: How is the staff dealing with that?

LH: You always have limited resources. This year, we've got the primary, the primary runoff, the general election and several other smaller elections. The other thing you have to remember is there are other laws that are coming into effect that are more concerning to me. One of them is this law that allows poll watchers to get as close as they want to voters. They determine how close they want to get, and if a poll worker tries to kick them out, the poll worker could be saddled with a criminal charge under the law. So we're having to train our poll workers. 

Here's another thing. Because the state does not allow county elections offices to send mail ballot applications to voters, now we have political parties sending mail ballot applications to voters. So, you receive a mail ballot application, it has the name of a candidate or a party, and it's asking you for your Social Security number. Are you going to fill that out? I understand why some folks would feel uncomfortable giving that application to a political party. 

TT: Who else is being affected by this?

LH: Groups like the League of Women Voters are used to receiving voter applications from the state, and now they can't. So we're trying to go over and around the wall. We're printing applications that we can give to the groups and we're making sure we have enough stock to do that. But we can't proactively provide them to voters because of the new law.

Here's another thing. We went through a process —  you know, a weeks-and-weeks-long process — to try to make our mail ballot form more user-friendly. It's as linear as you can make it, it maximizes the use of fonts, it has clarifying commentary. Many other counties just print out the basic form. It's difficult to understand. It's just complicated. I don't want to understate just how complicated filling out these forms is. We're the biggest county in Texas, and we've got a $5 million budget. 

A lot of folks, thousands, are inevitably going to fall through the cracks, and that's heartbreaking. It's also heartbreaking to think about the counties that are not willing to put these kinds of resources into it because they have to pander to the “big lie.”

In the states

Texas. Dozens of FBI agents were spotted at the Laredo home and campaign office of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) on Wednesday evening. In a statement, a spokesman for the nine-term congressman said that he would “fully cooperate in any investigation.” Meanwhile, Cuellar’s longtime strategist was locking his Twitter account and not responding to questions.

The FBI’s visit to Laredo came just weeks before early voting in Texas — and Cuellar is facing a rematch against attorney Jessica Cisneros, who’s endorsed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats. Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros in a 2020 primary. (A third candidate, Tannya Benavides, is running without either of her rivals’ national support.)

In a Thursday morning statement, Cisneros said she was “closely watching” the “active investigation” into Cuellar but would make no further comments. Her campaign went a little further in an email to donors, which included a photograph of the Laredo Morning Times and its headline about the FBI search.

“We don’t know much yet about what is happening and will send over updates as we receive them,” her campaign manager added, urging supporters to close the fundraising gap with Cuellar.

Cuellar was easily reelected in the 28th Congressional District last year, winning by 17 points as Joe Biden was carrying the Rio Grande Valley seat by just five points. And while the state’s new map made the seat slightly more Democratic, in order to make a neighboring seat more winnable for Republicans, the National Republican Congressional Committee included the district on its expanded list of 2022 targets last year. Six Republicans, including former Senate staffer Cassy Garcia and businessman Ed Cabrera, are running for the GOP nomination.

Connecticut. Business executive and tax-cut activist Bob Stefanowski (R) will seek a rematch against Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who narrowly defeated him in 2018. Stefanowski made the announcement with a call to “Chaz & AJ in the Morning,” the show on which he'd launched that 2018 bid, and published an op-ed in the Hartford Courant that accused Lamont of having “failed Connecticut” with his response to the pandemic.

“The governor frequently comments that Connecticut is ‘better off’ than states like Florida or Texas,” Stefanowski wrote. “While this might have satisfied residents for a while, they … no longer care that several other state leaders have failed even worse than Connecticut.”

Stefanowski had never run for office before 2018, when he won the Republican primary, in an upset, with a proposal to eliminate the state income tax. (Art Laffer, the supply-side economics guru, was one of his first supporters.) He quickly conceded after Lamont's three-point victory, and re-emerged during the pandemic as the founder of Masks for Heroes, a charity that distributed face coverings to health-care workers, then to whoever wanted them. In a round of interviews, he told reporters that his 2022 campaign wouldn't be “just about tax reform” but about a multitude of ways he saw people losing their quality of life in Connecticut.

“They're tired of prices going up,” he told Channel 3 in Hartford. “They're tired of high utility bills. They're tired of cars being stolen from their driveway.”

Ohio. State Rep. Emilia Sykes (D) joined the race for Ohio's 13th Congressional District, a competitive district outside of Cleveland that could be substantially redrawn, after the state Supreme Court forced legislators to create a more balanced map. Sykes was on the Republican-dominated commission that drew the new maps, and joined an amicus brief supporting the effort to undo them.

“It is a fool’s errand to try to predict what the court will do,” Sykes told Cleveland.com. “Northeast Ohioans should have a fighter in Congress. I want to be that fighter.” Ohio lost one of its 16 House seats after the 2020 Census, and the Republican map merged the current 13th District, which Rep. Tim Ryan (D) is vacating to run for U.S. Senate, with the vanishing 16th Congressional District, which Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R) will leave after angering Republican primary voters with his support for impeaching Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Massachusetts. Attorney General Maura Healey joined the race for governor Thursday, ending weeks — arguably, years — of speculation about whether the popular Democrat would run to replace Gov. Charlie Baker (R). “I've stood with you as the people's lawyer,” Healey said in a video announcement, “and now I'm running to be your governor.”

Healey easily won the 2014 race to succeed Democrat Martha Coakley, who lost to Baker, and passed on a 2018 run when the moderate Republican's approval ratings were some of the highest of any governor in the nation. Several other Democrats were running against Baker this year before he ruled out a third term; one of them, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, welcomed Healey to the race by saying the state needed a governor who'd “prioritize true racial justice in our public safety systems, take urgent action on climate change, and close the wealth divide.”

Countdown

… 26 days until school board recall elections in San Francisco
… 40 days until the first 2022 primaries
… 292 days until the midterm elections

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