These ballot measures will shape voting rights for years to come
One common refrain this year amid Trump's unprecedented assault on free and fair elections is that democracy itself is on the ballot. That's literally the case in many cities and states across the country, with voters set to decide on dozens of ballot measures that will determine who can vote and how elections will work for years to come.
Daily Kos Elections has compiled a spreadsheet that catalogs 24 different measures on a variety of topics related to elections, some placed on the ballot by voters and some by state lawmakers. Below we'll explore some of the most important measures and whether they could have a positive or negative impact on fair elections going forward. 2020 was poised to be another big year for initiatives to expand voting rights and fight largely Republican gerrymandering after reformers successfully passed measures to overcome hostile GOP legislatures in Michigan and elsewhere in 2018. However, after the pandemic hit, courts around the country issued rulings hostile to direct democracy by making it nearly impossible to collect the signatures needed to get measures onto the ballot. Nevertheless, a number states are still poised to vote on key issues affecting the workings of democracy this year.
Gerrymandering and Redistricting Reform
Missouri, New Jersey, and Virginia are all voting on measures that affect redistricting. In Missouri, Republicans placed a misleading amendment on the ballot that would effectively gut a reform that voters overwhelmingly passed in 2018 to make legislative redistricting fairer, trying to trick voters into repealing the reform by attaching token ethics reforms.
In New Jersey, Democrats have put an amendment on the ballot to delay legislative redistricting until the 2023 elections if the release of census data is delayed. The move is intended to protect incumbents from having to run in new districts for an extra two years to the detriment of New Jersey's growing Asian and Latino populations, whose rightful share of representation would be delayed if the amendment passes.
In an extremely unusual move in Virginia, the state's Democratic legislature allowed an amendment to pass with GOP support that would see Democrats surrender their own power to gerrymander and instead create a bipartisan commission appointed half by legislators from both parties and the other half chosen by retired judges. This reform was a compromise with Republican legislators and includes some flaws, but on the whole it should lead to relatively nonpartisan districts for Congress and the state legislature after 2020 if it becomes law.
Electoral System Reform
Efforts to replace the existing electoral system with something that more faithfully implements voters' preferences are on the ballot in several jurisdictions. These measures take aim at the existing system of plurality-winner elections that can see a third candidate play "spoiler" and cost the runner-up a victory. They all aim to ensure majority rule, but not all may end up having a positive effect.
In Alaska and Massachusetts, voters could adopt variants of instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting) in congressional and state elections. This system, which Maine adopted in 2016 and expanded in 2019, lets voters rank their preferences and sequentially eliminates the last-place finisher by reassigning their votes to each voter's subsequent preference until one candidate attains a majority. Such systems cut down on the spoiler problem and help to protect majority rule. Alaska's measure would use a variant where the top four finishers in an all-party primary would advance to an instant-runoff general election. (It would use a regular instant-runoff for the presidency.)
A more novel reform to plurality-winner elections is going before voters in St. Louis, Missouri. This approach would adopt a variation of so-called "approval voting," letting voters cast up to one vote for each candidate and having whichever two candidates receive the most votes in the first round advance to the general election. This system aims to avoid some of the complications of instant-runoff voting but is largely untested in real elections, unlike instant-runoff voting, which has a long history both domestically at the local level and abroad.
A Florida initiative that would implement a top two "primary" for state-level elections could have disastrous effects for partisan fairness and Black and Latino representation. This system is in use in California and Washington and has seen major parties get shut out of winnable general elections solely because their vote was split between too many candidates in the primary. It could also make it much harder for Black voters especially to elect their chosen candidates and is facing a lawsuit that could invalidate it for that reason.
Finally, Mississippi's GOP-led legislature, in the face of a lawsuit, has placed an amendment on the ballot to repeal part of its 1890 Jim Crow constitution that created an Electoral College-esque system for determining the winner in elections for governor and other statewide executive offices. This system has been further strained by GOP gerrymandering, such that it would be impossible for Democrats and the Black voters who support them to ever win statewide. This reform would require majority support to avoid a runoff, a method that is not ideal but is nevertheless fairer than the status quo.
Restrictions on the Ballot Initiative Process
Republicans across the country have gerrymandered their maps and passed widespread restrictions on voting, leaving direct democracy as a critical tool for fighting back against these efforts to entrench GOP minority rule. Republicans have responded by trying to restrict the initiative process to preserve their power and have advanced measures in Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota that would make it harder for reformers to place new measures of their own on the ballot in the future.
Bans on Noncitizen Voting
Republicans in Alabama, Colorado, and Florida are supporting amendments that would rewrite their constitutions to emphasize that only citizens may vote. While these measures would have no effect on the status quo, they would prevent local governments from experimenting with letting legal permanent residents who lack citizenship still vote in local elections, something a handful of small localities in the U.S. and many European democracies already allow.
Efforts to Lower the Voting Age
Lowering the voting age to 16 is an idea that has quietly grown in popularity in recent years. A handful of small localities already allow the practice in local elections, and a majority of the House Democratic caucus voted in favor of doing so federally last year. A number of foreign democracies such as Austria and Brazil already allow 16-year-olds to vote, and San Francisco could become the first major city in America to lower the voting age to 16 in local elections. Just to the east, the city of Oakland could lower the voting age for school board elections, and all of California could join a growing number of states letting 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they'll turn 18 by the general election.
Puerto Rico will once again vote on whether to become a state, and while the measure is not legally binding, it could spur Congress to act on passing an admission bill if Democrats retake the Senate and eliminate the filibuster. Statehood would mean that more than 3 million American citizens would gain representation in the House and Senate. It would also modestly mitigate the upper chamber's bias against voters of color and potentially lessen its partisan bias toward the GOP, too.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would assign a state's votes in the Electoral College to the national popular vote winner if states with a majority of electoral votes sign on, has gained steam since Trump's election in 2016 and saw Colorado become the first swing state to join in 2019. However, Colorado Republicans have fought back by putting an initiative on the ballot to repeal the law joining the compact. The outcome of the vote could encourage Democrats in other swing states to follow Colorado's lead, or deter them.
While nearly every state constitution protects the right to vote in some form, Nevada could go even further by enshrining the right to vote in its constitution using modernized language to protect certain methods of voting access. California, meanwhile, could expand voting rights to tens of thousands of citizens on parole for a felony conviction, joining 18 other states that don't disenfranchise anyone not in prison.
Finally, Oregon is one of the last states that allows individuals to donate unlimited sums of money directly to candidates in state elections, but that may soon change. A state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year overturned a precedent that had barred limits on campaign contributions, and now Democrats have placed an amendment on the ballot to codify lawmakers' ability to regulate campaign donations and ensure that the existence of such limits and disclosure requirements isn't dependent upon the ever-changing composition of the courts.
Below you can find a table summarizing all 24 ballot measures we're tracking, and you can find a spreadsheet version of it here.
|JURISDICTION||TITLE||SUBJECT||IMPACT ON FAIR ELECTIONS||DESCRIPTION|
|Alabama||Amendment 1||Noncitizen voting||Negative||Bans noncitizens from voting in local elections by requiring citizenship for voting|
|Alaska||Measure 2||Electoral system reform||Positive or Neutral||Adopts a top-four primary with instant-runoff general election; adds campaign finance disclosure requirements|
|Arkansas||Issue 3||Ballot initiative process||Negative||Tightens geographic distribution restrictions for ballot initiative signature requirements in order to make liberal-supported initiatives harder|
|Arkansas||Issue 2||Term limits||Neutral||Loosens lifetime term limits for legislators|
|California||Proposition 18||Voting age||Positive||Lets 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election|
|California||Proposition 17||Felony disenfranchisement||Positive||Eliminates disenfranchisement of voters on parole for a felony conviction|
|Colorado||Amendment 76||Noncitizen voting||Negative||Bans noncitizens from voting in local elections by requiring citizenship for voting|
|Colorado||Proposition 113||Electoral College||Negative||Referendum to repeal law joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact for the Electoral College|
|Florida||Amendment 4||Ballot initiative process||Negative||Requires ballot initiatives to win (at least 60%) voter support in two consecutive general elections instead of one|
|Florida||Amendment 3||Electoral system reform||Negative||Adopts a top-two primary (aka two-round system) in state-level races|
|Florida||Amendment 1||Noncitizen voting||Negative||Bans noncitizens from voting in local elections by requiring citizenship for voting|
|Iowa||Constitutional Convention||Constitutional convention||Neutral||Decides whether to call a state constitutional convention|
|Massachusetts||Question 2||Electoral system reform||Positive||Adopts instant-runoff voting (aka ranked-choice) in congressional, state, and countywide elections|
|Mississippi||Measure 2||Electoral system reform||Positive||Repeals Jim Crow-era "electoral college" law in statewide elections and replaces it with provision for a separate runoff election if no candidate wins a majority|
|Missouri||Amendment 3||Legislative redistricting||Negative||Effectively repeals a voter-approved 2018 ballot measure that made legislative redistricting treat both parties more fairly|
|Missouri||Amendment 1||Term limits||Neutral||Sets a two-term limit for statewide executive offices below the governorship, which is already subject to that limit|
|Nevada||Question 4||Right to vote||Positive||Guarantees the right to vote via certain methods|
|New Jersey||Question 3||Legislative redistricting||Negative||Postpones 2021 legislative redistricting until the 2023 election cycle if census data release is delayed to after Feb. 15, 2021|
|North Dakota||Measure 2||Ballot initiative process||Negative||Requires a ballot initiative to win voter support in two consecutive general elections instead of one if the legislature doesn't approve it|
|Oregon||Measure 107||Campaign finance||Positive||Allows the legislature to set campaign donation limits and disclosure requirements in state and local elections|
|Virginia||Redistricting Commission Amendment||Redistricting reform||Positive||Creates a bipartisan commission to draw congressional and legislative districts|
|Oakland, CA||Measure QQ||Voting age||Positive||Lowers the voting age to 16 in school board election|
|San Francisco, CA||Proposition G||Voting age||Positive||Lowers the voting age to 16 in local elections|
|St. Louis, MO||Proposition D||Electoral system reform||Positive||Adopts approval voting primary where the top-two finishers advance to the general election for local elections|