By mid-November, it was clear that the midterm elections went really well for Democrats — and even better for progressives.
Grassroots activists were able to enact a slew of progressive priorities via ballot initiatives, even in states where Democrats rarely win elections. In Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska, voters overwhelmingly chose to expand Medicaid. In Michigan, they supported nonpartisan redistricting reform, expanding voting rights, and legalizing marijuana. In Missouri and Arkansas, voters voted to raise the minimum wage. Floridians, meanwhile, gave the vote back to over a million rehabilitated ex-felons.
The list of victories goes on and on, marking triumphs for a number of grassroots groups and the ascendance of one national organization: The Fairness Project, a DC-based 501(c)(4) that works to support local activists at every step of the ballot initiative process. The organization was involved in each minimum wage and Medicaid expansion victory, a win for regulating payday loans in Colorado, and a number of other ballot wins last month.
“By actually putting progressive wins on the board there,” Jonathan Schleifer, the Executive Director of The Fairness Project, tells Progressives Everywhere, “we demonstrated that Americans are much less interested in the divisiveness of the current administration and much more interested — when given the opportunity — to look out for each other and actually make progressive policy.”
After a week filled with lame-duck Republican legislators making a mockery of democracy and thumbing their nose at voters, it’s clear that direct ballot initiatives are going to be even more essential tools in our activism. With that in mind, here is Progressives Everywhere’s conversation with Schleifer about how The Fairness Project goes about supporting grassroots groups and what’s coming next.
When do you usually get involved with the campaigns you work on?
We had one race in 2017, for Maine’s Medicaid expansion. We were working with the folks in Maine even before the 2016 election to get the initiative on the 2017 ballot. So we want to be the first phone call that a campaign or group puts out there. We understand that one of the weaknesses in the progressive ballot space is that there is very little early funding. We provide that early funding.
The traditional funders of this work don’t want to put money into the riskier parts of a campaign. That’s the early research. That’s the signature collection. That’s the coalition building, the movement building work early on. That is seen as being risky to traditional, larger funders.
For our 2018 initiatives, we started that in the middle of 2017. We were talking to folks in Utah before the 2017 election, we were talking to folks in Idaho and Nebraska soon after the Maine victory.
Do you ever seek out people to fight for ballot initiatives in states, or is it always people coming to you?
It’s two extremes. One is us going to a state and saying, have you considered this strategy? You’ve been beating your head against the wall trying to get something done in your legislature for the last six years, so here’s the strategy may not have considered. We’re going to help you with all the early funding. We’re going to help you do the polling. We’re gonna help you get it on the ballot, and then we’re going to make sure that you win.
That’s what happened with Utah. We flew out there. We got introduced to some advocacy organizations that had been trying to expand Medicaid and couldn’t get the Utah legislature to do it. They convened a table for us and we did a dog and pony show and explained it to them.
The other end of the spectrum is Idaho, where this great group called Reclaim Idaho started up right after the 2016 election. A bunch of friends started driving a green van around the state and was asking people what was the most important issue to them? And they kept hearing healthcare. So they started an organization to get on the ballot to expand Medicaid. And we called them up and said, hey, we want to help you do this right and win.
Nebraska was sort of a hybrid of the two, where the day after the Maine win in 2017, we got a phone call from a state senator in Nebraska who every year had been submitting legislation to expand Medicaid and every year it died in committee. He basically said, “I saw what you did in Maine, will you help us do the same thing in Nebraska?”
Our broken political system should be fixing a broken economy. But the fact that we have the intersection of these two broken systems means that we have to go around the entire thing and go straight to voters.
In some states, the work that you did with activists on organizing ballot measures spurred legislatures to actually pass the policies before the initiatives reached election day. It worked out well in California and Massachusetts. Is that something you plan to do more of — using ballot initiatives as a show of strength and public support for a policy, to get it passed?
I don’t think it’s a good strategy for us to intentionally use ballots to manipulate the legislature, to put pressure on them, unless we think we can actually win the ballot initiatives. I don’t think we’d ever In California, when we were able to raise the minimum wage, we had qualified the initiative and we had the polling to show that we could win. In Massachusetts, the same thing. We had done the early polling. The organizers in California and in Massachusetts had done an incredible job of collecting signatures and qualifying and we could have won.
I think we’re probably not going to do it that way, but we will certainly use it as a tool to push even more progressive policy in blue states and to push new progressive policy in red states.
On the flip side, the Michigan legislature this fall passed minimum wage increase and paid sick leave laws so that ballot measures on those fronts, which you were supporting, didn’t make it to election day. Now they’re gutting those laws, and trying to defang the measures that did pass, like redistricting reform.
Because we’ve managed to use this lever of power that scares the hell out of the institutional politicians, they go out of their way to make it harder for us. They raised the threshold from 50 percent to 60 percent [approval] in Florida. They create geographic requirements. It’s the same way that they keep people from voting generally; they create structures and rules and regulations to make it that much harder to get to the polls.
In many states, these politicians know that they are not aligned with their constituents. They know that a ballot initiative will show that to be true. They are then putting up obstacles, whether through the qualification process or by raising the standards to win or by suing us after the fact or by meddling with it in legislature.
If I was giving advice to a candidate, I would say to them look at what the incumbent has done vis-a-vis initiatives. Did voters pass or strongly support an initiative that the incumbent didn’t? That seems like a really good ad to run in an election.
The ballot initiatives have provided really good data as to where voters are, down to the down to the district level. We have district-level results, so if you’re trying to demonstrate that the incumbent is not aligned with voters and fighting for voters, their opposing or undermining a ballot initiative that was strongly supported by their voters is a great piece of evidence.
Only about half of states allow significant ballot measures for legislation. Is there any plan to try to expand that number, maybe by state constitutional amendments?
No, but you create pressure on neighboring states to do the same [policies]. And so there, there are enough of these states, particularly large ones like California, but also red states, that send strong signals to other red states — we are seeing it with Missouri and Arkansas.
So on election night, the governor of Louisiana tweeted that, hey Missouri and Arkansas, our neighboring states, just raised the minimum wage, so maybe it’s time for us to do the same. Louisiana doesn’t have a ballot initiative process, but they’re pressured by states that do. I’ve started to hear from folks who saw what happened in Utah, Idaho and Nebraska, from folks in Alabama and North Carolina where they don’t have Medicaid expansion. They don’t have ballot processes, but they’re motivated and inspired [to fight for Medicaid expansion legislation].
So what’s the focus for 2020?
There are six states that could do Medicaid expansion via the ballot, including a very expensive Florida and a very expensive Missouri. There are a bunch of other states that are long overdue for minimum wage increases — states that are at $7.25. We’re not talking moving them from $9 to $12, they are at $7.25. So there are so many opportunities for us to take this winning strategy and bring it to states and work with people and help build a permanent infrastructure of progressive ballots in these states.
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