Ballot initiatives: Secrets of the most successful progressive strategy in years

Election night 2016 was a nightmare for progressives (and really most Americans), but there was one somewhat surprising and very promising bright spot. Ballot measures pushed by progressive groups were approved by huge margins by voters across the country, resulting in increased minimum wages, expanded Medicaid, and other big policy victories in both blue and red states.

Amazing what happens when the issues are clear and voters are offered a direct chance to improve their lives.

This year, with Republicans dominating government on all level, progressive groups have doubled down on direct democracy to push or fix important policies that corrupt conservatives (and to be fair, many Democrats) have either ignored or openly and cravenly blocked from passing. And as we saw in the massive victory for repealing the toxic “right to work for less” law in Missouri, these are very popular and winnable campaigns.

We’ve covered the red state progressive activists that have gathered enough signatures to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in Montana, Idaho, and Utah, and there are also a slate of people-powered initiatives that would end gerrymandering in states like Michigan, loosen marijuana laws in Missouri, and fix housing issues in California.  To learn more about the upcoming voter initiatives, Progressives Everywhere spoke with Donna De La Cruz, the communications director for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which helps progressives nationwide launch and strategize direct democracy.

How did a state like Missouri, which is becoming a very red state, vote so overwhelmingly for “right to work” repeal?

For some people just certain issues sort of transcend parties. I think minimum wage is one. With something like the measure in Missouri to repeal the “right to work” law, if it’s messaged right and the public is educated correctly, that makes all the difference.

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Why don’t Democrats start campaigning on obviously popular issues? If they see so many people voting to increase the minimum wage, why not champion that, use that language?

Some lawmakers definitely see how powerful ballot measures are. But I think mostly with candidates they don’t really don’t focus on the issues until they see enough polling to see where it’s going to throw their support behind it, which is, which is too bad. They just sort of wait to see how the winds are gonna blow. But I think there are just some initiatives that people just really feel that they want and need. I think the one thing about ballot initiatives is that they’re often not thought of as being partisan.

Definitely right to work was partisan, but things like minimum wage, a lot of people just see it as extra money in their paychecks and not having all the money go to big corporations.

So what does BISC do, as a centralized strategy operation for progressive ballot measures?

We track new track statewide initiatives all year long and we update the list every two weeks. We do a lot of trainings where one of our staffers will go and talk to a group, working them through how the process works. The ballot process works differently in every state.

Sometimes it has to be done through a constitutional amendment. Sometimes you can collect signatures. Sometimes it has to be referred by the legislature. So there are all these different methods and people have to know exactly what the process is. If it’s collecting signatures, they need to know just how many they’re going to need and how many they need from different counties, because you can’t get all the signatures from one area. It’s got to be statewide.

You need to know the cost, like how much manpower do you think you’re going to need? It’s making sure that they are aware that this is not something that can happen quickly in most cases. You have to try to figure out what kind of support you have for it. To see if you can win, but even before you can win, if you can even collect enough signatures to start really campaigning. So there’s a lot of those. We do a lot of those, you know, we do a lot of educational trainings along those lines.

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I know that there have been more lawsuits over ballot measures and lawmakers, especially in GOP states, often don’t comply — see Maine and Medicaid — or repeal the measures, right?

Some states are fighting back to keep measures off ballots. North Carolina [Republicans are trying to trick voters into curtailing voting rights] and Michigan’s minimum wage initiative is in court. In Massachusetts, there’s a ballot measure to overturn the state’s anti-discrimination law against transgender people. Even in DC, it’s an example of a pretty heavily Democratic City Council that is trying to overturn a ballot measure that was approved in June during the primary election that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. It passed pretty overwhelmingly, but the DC City Council has introduced legislation that would undo it.

Some of these measures are launched by citizens, but there are often big campaigns around them, like in Missouri. What kind of bigger groups have you seen organizing these measures?

There are a couple of climate groups out west that we’re really not a part of, like NextGen. The Restaurant Opportunities group is active in a couple of states to raise the minimum wage. Definitely some unions support paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage as well. It’s a huge variety of groups. There are some really small groups. There’s a group in Florida, we’re really helping them with restoring the right to vote for former felons. That’s Second Chances Florida. They were formed solely to get this amendment on the ballot and then get it passed in Florida.

What kind of legwork does it take to get something on the ballot? How long does it usually take?

I’ll just give you an example. In Washington state, there’s an initiative on the ballot to tax polluters who emit fossil fuels and then they would use that money for clean jobs. That has been discussed for at least at least a couple of years before they even tried to put it on the ballot. I know that it was still being discussed like two years ago, just trying to generate the support and trying to figure out the educational campaign for that. Because that’s a tough one because the average citizen probably never even thinks about a carbon tax.

And I know that with the Florida initiative, you take some polls just to see like what the sentiment is among the residents, whether or not people do agree that ex-felons should be given the right to vote. So it’s a lot of education and just research first.

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Florida has a fully Republican state government. Let’s say Democrats flip a lot of legislatures and governorships this year and win power in a lot more states. How do you see ballot measures playing a role in an environment that’s more friendly to the issues they are working to pass?

I would definitely hope that it would be seen as a good leverage tool for citizens. The teachers in Arizona that went on strike earlier this year to get a raise in pay have really banded together to get an education measure on the ballot that would tax the wealthiest people in Arizona and use that money to pay for education. I know that banding together to raise their own pay gave them this idea. But it has not been popular at all. It just survived a legal challenge this week.

So getting all those signatures to get on the ballot definitely doesn’t always mean it’s super-popular or is going to pass.

I think sometimes just because it’s on the ballot, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done. There’s a measure on the Ohio ballot that would affect nonviolent drug offenders and I think that they barely got the number of signatures that they needed to get to get on the ballot. So I think that there’s still a lot of work there.

And people think that ballot measures are just really poorly worded, which they are, and the groups don’t write the ballot language. It’s the secretary of state’s offices and sometimes lawmakers start chiming in. So sometimes it makes no sense, so even if it’s really popular and on the ballot, it can be confusing to people and it’s always the last item on a ballot. So people might have supported it had they known it or if it had a different title or was just easier to read.

CLICK HERE to donate to campaigns working hard to pass progressive ballot initiatives!

What are the kinds of ballot measures you’re seeing the most this year?

Over the last year or two, the minimum wage has still been up there, but this year, we’re seeing a lot of gerrymandering initiatives. In most instances, redistricting is only done every 10 years, so it’s really interesting to see the number of gerrymandering initiatives on there to take the power away from partisan groups and give them to an independent commission. I think that’s a really interesting one to watch.

There’s not as much paid sick leave on the ballot statewide as I think people would have hoped. And I think some people are surprised that there’s not very many gun control measures on the ballot, especially given the shooting at the high school in Florida. Our take is that it was just too quick, there wasn’t enough time for people for people to get the measures on the ballot this year.

People have been really pressuring legislators on guns — maybe they don’t realize that ballot measures can be used for even that issue.

I think more people are definitely seeing the usefulness of ballot measures. I just think sometimes it’s a daunting task, especially if we want to do it statewide. But I think it’s all about educating people and getting the word out.

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Iowa has a chance for a total Blue Wave

There’s a lot of insane things happening in America right now. Attacks on abortion rights. Voting rights at risk. Trade wars. Nazi sympathizers in office. And Iowa, the quiet heartland right smack in the middle of the country, is dealing with all of it.

What happens in Iowa this November will have an outsized impact on the rest of us. So let’s start with good news: While the last few years have seen Republicans play every angle and pull every nasty trick in their Jim Crow 2.0 playbook to disenfranchise voters, a judge delivered some good news for democracy (and Democrats) in Iowa on Thursday. In a crucial ruling, an injunction was placed on the state’s controversial Voter ID law, suspending the discriminatory practice and restoring the 11 days of early voting that the legislature eliminated last fall.

It was a major setback for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, an old-school, corrupt creature of whatever would you’d call the cornfield-equivalent of the swamp in Des Moines. A few hours after the ruling, I hopped on the phone with Deidre DeJear, a former Obama campaign coordinator who is now the Democratic nominee challenging Pate this November.

“He commissioned this bill, then turned it over to a senator and they put it through committee and ended up passing it,” DeJear said, putting the onus directly on the man she is trying to unseat. “This is his baby and this is what he’s been working on for a while in our state. He hasn’t been promoting voting.”

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Encouraging the electorate is engrained in her, as DeJear has been working to turn out votes since childhood. That’s not hyperbole — as a kid, she was drafted to help on her grandmother’s campaign for election commissioner of Yazoo County in Mississippi.

It should be noted that, when she was a kid knocking on doors for her grandma, Pate was being called a “big league sleaze” by political columnists in Des Moines. He’s made a habit of corruption and lying — just this spring he called an AP investigation into oversights in his financial disclosures “fake news,” before later adjusting those documents to account for millions of dollars in undisclosed property.

DeJear, meanwhile, has made a career out of helping small businesses. She was just out of college, working in the marketing department of a small local bank when the 2008 recession hit and wiped out the livelihoods of millions of Americans. People were laid off en masse and many felt forced to start their own businesses, and came to the bank looking for guidance.

So DeJear ultimately left to start her own company, which helps to launch and market new small businesses. The Secretary of State in Iowa also has a heavy hand in small business administration, another reason she wants to win the job.

“We have over 260,000 small businesses in our state and they provide jobs for about 50 percent of the workforce, so I want to make sure that whatever economic trials and tribulations come through the path of Iowa that our small business owners are going to weather that storm,” she said. “I remember in 2008 to 2010, there were just so many dilapidated buildings and empty storefronts. Now that they’re filled back up, I don’t want to fall by the wayside again. We’re also trying to further develop and redevelop rural Iowa, and rural Iowa isn’t too good right now, especially in light of all Trump’s trade war stuff, so we need to make sure that they’re getting resources.”

Her adult political career started around the same time as her formative business experience. While attending Drake University, DeJear helped organize students for then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. She took on a bigger role with his re-election campaign four years later.

“When 2012 came along, I walked into the office to volunteer and a couple of weeks later it became a full-time job,” DeJear, who now works as a small business consultant, remembered. “I traveled throughout the state. I was African-American vote director that year and my job was to get African-Americans engaged in the process because we knew by and large the African-American supported the President, but that didn’t necessarily translate into a vote.”

Her plan, a combination of canvassing and active citizen-to-citizen lobbying, helped increase the minority share of the vote in lily-white Iowa from 3% in 2008 to 7% in 2012 — crucial to a smaller margin of victory for Obama in his second go-round.

Five years later, as Pate pushed the law in the legislature, he promised that it would not make voting more difficult for Iowans. That was, as everyone knew at the time, a blatant lie. Beyond the fact that voter fraud is almost non-existent, which negates the cynical rationale for the measure, national statistics make clear just how much these laws deter eligible voters from casting ballots — even when they do show up to the polls with all their proper paperwork. And in Iowa, it quickly became clear during local and primary elections that the Voter ID law was the equivalent of scattering roadblocks and car wrecks across a highway and suggesting that people were still free to drive.

Clearing the path to voting isn’t enough. To exhaust the metaphor, DeJear is focused on getting more people actively on the road to the polls.

“We also have 2.3 million people eligible to vote, but only 1.9 million registered,” she said. “So we’ve got about 400,000 folks that are just kinda out there in limbo and he’s not really doing much to engage them either. So there’s a lot of work that can be done in that office to increase voter turnout.”

CLICK HERE to donate to Deidre DeJear via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page

Pate promises to fight to make voting harder all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court, while DeJear’s plan to handle voter rights and election administration is fundamentally different. It comes down to a very simple philosophical difference: Unlike Pate, DeJear actually wants more people to vote and participate in the system. Headlining her agenda is automatic voter registration, a progressive policy that’s grown more popular over the last few years as Democrats have woken up to the importance of voting rights and expanding the electorate.

“Right now, when you go to the DMV, if you’re getting your driver’s license renewed or getting your ID renewed, you have to ask about applying to register to vote,” she said. “The situation that I would prefer is that people, if they’re eligible to vote, they’re automatically registered, and if they want to opt out, they can.”

In states that have implemented automatic voter registration, the rate at which citizens registered to vote increased dramatically. Anything that gets people out of the DMV faster is a public service — adding voting rights to the equation is nearly saintly.

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So, why should you care?

Iowa is traditionally a swing state, but in recent years has tacked to the right, like many states in which Democrats largely abandoned their political infrastructure after 2012. And thanks to both that rightward shift and Democrats’ grassroots resurgence, the state has suddenly become a microcosm of the national political environment. For a landlocked, largely rural state, it’s got an astonishing number of issues at play.

The ballot will be crowded in the state this year. Along with the Secretary of State race, Iowa plays host to a gubernatorial election and what should be a number of very tight races in a GOP-controlled state legislature that is close enough that it could tip back to Democrats in a wave election. Wresting some control of the state will be critical to stopping a return of the medieval anti-abortion law that the GOP passed there this spring; it was quickly blocked by a judge, but as of now, GOP leadership plans on taking it all the way to a Supreme Court that may be far more conservative in just a few months.

Iowa is also home to Steve King, one of the most racist congressmen in the country (we profiled his challenger several weeks ago), and is being hit particularly hard by Trump’s trade war, which could begin to loosen rural voters’ entrenched support of the GOP. Maximizing voter turnout this year and going forward is absolutely crucial — and having a Secretary of State that actually cares about voter rights is an essential part of that.

With the legislature up for grabs, DeJear also recommended two other candidates running in the state this November.

Lindsay James is a first-time candidate who is running in Iowa House District 99, which is currently held by Abby Finkenauer, who is running for Congress (her name may sound familiar, as Progressives Everywhere endorsed her months ago). James is a college chaplain whose faith inspires her progressive beliefs and community service. Her resume is incredibly impressive and frankly makes me feel lazy; James serves as the Director of the Loras College Peace Institute, chair of the Community Development Advisory Board, elected county official and a board member for the NAACP and the Children of Abraham. She has endorsed Medicare for All.

Jackie Smith is a retired speech pathologist who is running for State Senate after over 30 years of serving her Sioux City community in the classroom. She now owns a small store in Sioux City and served eight years on the County Board of Supervisors, and is very focused on both education and job training. Smith is running in District 7, which was already considered a top pickup opportunity before its Republican incumbent retired.

Progressives Everywhere has already endorsed Iowa’s Democratic candidate for governor, Fred Hubbell, whose election should help squelch the battle over that awful abortion law.

CLICK HERE to donate to Lindsay James, Jackie Smith, Deidre DeJear, and Fred Hubbell via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page

EXCLUSIVE: Iowa Judge Strikes Down Voter ID Law; Dem Nominee Reacts

We’ve seen the GOP work assiduously to dismantle the American voting system, through purges and strict ID laws that disproportionately target minorities and Democratic-leaning voters. Today in Iowa, a judge struck down the state’s pernicious and racist Voter ID law.

From the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

An Iowa judge Wednesday issued a temporary injunction barring the state from implementing some provisions of Iowa’s new voter ID law.

The ruling, for now, restores the absentee early voting period from 29 days to 40 days and blocks certain ID requirements of the law, passed by the GOP-led Legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Terry Branstad in May 2017.

Polk County District Judge Karen Romano ruled that elements of the state’s new system requiring state-issued voter identification numbers on absentee ballots could harm the rights of voters to participate in elections, “in contravention” of Iowa’s Constitution.

The law was initiated by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, who worked to get the legislature to adopt and pass it. The ruling is a direct rebuke and could hurt the GOP’s chances in November. Pate himself is up for re-election, and is being challenged by former Obama campaign coordinator and small business owner Deidre DeJear.

I was actually just on the phone with DeJear as part of an already scheduled interview for Progressives Everywhere, and she was ecstatic about the ruling.

CLICK HERE to donate to Deidre DeJear via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue Page.

“The judge ruled that they could not prove the law was necessary. So 40 days of early voting is back, the ID requirement is no longer there, and there were some strange requirements for the absentee ballot system that have been annihilated,” she explained. “Paul Pate commissioned this bill. This is his baby, this is what he’s been working on for a while in our state. He hasn’t been promoting voting. We have about 2.3 million voters who are eligible to vote in our state but only 1.9 million are active. He’s not doing anything to engage them and there’s a lot of work that can be done in that office to increase our voter turnout.”

In her role for the Obama re-election campaign, she helped activate the youth and African-American vote. In 2012, minorities accounted for 7% of the vote in Iowa, up from 3% in 2008.

She’s in favor of automatic voter registration and actively promoting voting, instead of discouraging it like Pate has done. And with Iowa as a crucial swing state, having as many active voters as possible is a good thing for Democrats — and most of all, for democracy.

CLICK HERE to donate to Deidre DeJear via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue Page.

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Protecting elections from Russia and Republicans

America right now is a circus in which the clowns are armed to the teeth and the tent is collapsing all around us. It’s been a wild two weeks, packed with disturbing — if not unexpected — revelations about the forces conspiring against American voters. Democracy is under attack and the President of the United States not only doesn’t care, he’s actively helping to facilitate the assault.

On Monday, in what would be a stunning event if the last two years hadn’t been filled with ludicrously stunning events, Donald Trump stood up on stage next to a smirking Vladimir Putin and blamed the US for Russia’s undeniable hijacking of the 2016 elections. And then after giving the lamest excuse ever for his treason, he went and invited Putin to Washington, presumably so he could hand-deliver him some juicy national secrets.

And the scariest part of it all? Trump also said that he doesn’t think Russia is working to hack the 2018 elections, directly contradicting both the Director of National Intelligence and all logic.

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There are mountains of evidence that Russian hackers targeted our decentralized, borderline disastrous electoral system in 2016. It wasn’t a fair fight — imagine a KGB agent taking aim at senior citizens whose email passwords are just the names of their grandchildren. We know that at minimum one state’s voter database was hacked, resulting in the theft of half a million voters’ sensitive personal information. That’s one state too many, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg — there were at least 21 states targeted in 2016.

Russians also hacked local elections and, despite what Trump says, have already targeted three congressional candidates. Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, was incredibly blunt when talking about this last month, warning that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

The Senate is trying to get states to upgrade their election security, and in March authorized a $380 million outlay for them to do so, but so far, few states have agreed to use that money to fortify their systems before the November election.

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Meanwhile, the House Republicans’ budget strips away that funding to secure election systems protection money next year, and they refuse to allow a vote to reinstate that crucial funding. On top of that, the GOP is actively working to suppress votes in other ways, including gerrymandering to create non-competitive districts, enacting voter ID laws, shutting down voting locations and just straight up taking people (especially minorities) off the voting rolls (thank the Supreme Court for that one).

Ideally, progressive Democrats will win back the House and state governments this fall, and then pass laws that fortify elections systems and expand the right to vote. And we are working hard on that, but there’s also a more direct way to stop the worst of the abuses and beef up voter database security. It varies from state to state, but in a plurality of cases, elected Secretaries of State control a state’s elections, wielding an inordinate amount of power over our democracy.

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Republicans control 28 of those offices, while Democrats hold 17. Not a great ratio, but it’s looking like the most endangered seats this fall are currently held by Republicans, giving Democrats an excellent chance of turning the tide.

We’ve already spoken a good bit about Kathleen Clyde, the Democratic candidate for Ohio Secretary of State. That’s possibly the most crucial race, given the state’s impending voter purge — Clyde has promised to cancel it if elected. Her GOP opponent, Frank LaRose, meanwhile, openly embraces Donald Trump.

There are a number of other classic or emerging swing states that will have hotly contested Secretary of State races that Democrats have a great chance of winning. We’re supporting candidates in Iowa, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Michigan… plus Georgia and Kansas, two GOP strongholds where circumstances put the race in play.

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Michigan presents a classic swing state case. Its state government was hijacked by Republicans, who gerrymandered their way into total control of Lansing. But thanks to term limits and a lot of progressive energy, Democrats are poised to toss the GOP from office. Jocelyn Benson, the former dean of Wayne State University, is the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State, a role for which she is truly prepared — Benson wrote a whole book on the importance of the position. She’s currently working as the CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, an organization that just so happens to be running a major voter education campaign right now.

Benson recently gave a great interview about the issues she’ll prioritize in office, and expanding the electorate, making it easier to vote, and protecting elections were at the top of the list.

As for Kansas and Georgia, Democrats will be trying to take advantage of voters’ exhaustion with corrupt, nasty Republicans Secretaries of State. Both Kris Kobach of Kansas and Brian Kemp are running for governor of their respective states, creating real openings for progressives to win in wave elections.

Kobach is both the most prominent and most reviled Secretary of State in the country. Not only did he create the fundamentally flawed interstate voter cross-checking database, he ran Trump’s all-too-brief “Voter Fraud” commission, which was such a spectacular failure that even the White House that embraces and promotes disasters decided to disband it. Kobach is running for governor (Republicans always fail up) and Democrats have nominated a solid outsider candidate in former tech exec Brian McClendon, giving them a better-than-usual chance to win.

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Electoral news roundup: The future is female in Texas

Trump and Putin’s press conference yesterday was nothing short of pathetic. It deserves all the outrage we can throw at it — but it’s also not the only pressing news story happening right now. Here’s a look at some of the most important electoral stories happening right now:

  • In Texas, women are running for office in unprecedented numbers. Right now, there are only 29 women in the 150-seat State Legislature and eight women out of 31 state senators. But women make up nearly half of the Democratic Party’s nominees this year — including its nominee for governor.
  • Defying conventional wisdom, bold progressivism — and democratic socialism — is on the rise in western Pennsylvania and the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Lt. Governor candidate John Fetterman, the ultra-popular mayor of Braddock, is helping the surge. Bernie Sanders recently visited Pittsburgh to rally with Fetterman.
  • Maine voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to expand Medicaid last fall, but the state’s insane GOP governor, Paul LePage, refuses to carry out the will of the people. He’s now defying a court order to implement the Medicaid expansion, and just last week said he’d sooner go to jail than help working people go to the doctor. We’d like to see both happen.
  • Activists in Michigan delivered over 400,000 signatures to get a voter rights initiative on the ballot this fall. But a group of corporations is now suing to have the initiative removed from the ballot, a scary prospect given the fact that the State Supreme Court is made up entirely of Republicans. Citizens are fighting back, though, holding protests in Detroit to demand that the Chamber of Commerce, one of the lawsuits’ financiers, pulls out of the effort to thwart democracy.
  • The Koch Brothers are behind some incredibly misleading mailers to voters in Missouri, where Right to Work is on the ballot. Of course, they’re yet another attack on unions and workers.
  • New Hampshire is making it harder for people to vote, especially college students.