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This group gets left-leaning policies passed in red states. How? Ballot measures

Proposal 3 flyers are situated in boxes on Nov. 06, 2022 in Dearborn, Mich. Voters in Michigan passed Prop 3, enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution.
Brandon Bell
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Proposal 3 flyers are situated in boxes on Nov. 06, 2022 in Dearborn, Mich. Voters in Michigan passed Prop 3, enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution.

One side effect of political division in the states — blue states getting bluer and red states getting redder — is that some policies don't have a chance of getting passed by partisan state legislatures, even if a majority of voters back them.

But a left-leaning advocacy group called the Fairness Project has created a playbook for using ballot initiatives to go around GOP-led state legislatures.

Since 2016, it has backed successful initiatives to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid in at least nine states run entirely or mostly by Republicans at the time of the vote. (It also works in Democratically led states.)

Now, it's one of several groups gearing up to put abortion rights on the ballot in 2024. But the recent success of such measures in Republican-led states has drawn criticism from lawmakers and helped fuel a raft of attempts to curb ballot measures.

Ballot measures are expensive and time-consuming

When Missouri-based minimum wage advocates wanted to run a statewide ballot initiative in 2017, they turned to the Fairness Project.

"We're sort of figuring things out as we go, and the Fairness Project is a particular expert on this tactic," says Missouri Jobs with Justice political director Richard Van Glahn.

Kansas City and St. Louis had tried hiking their minimum wages, but those efforts were overruled by state lawmakers. A ballot initiative would raise the minimum wage across the state — if voters approved it.

But winning takes "more than just motivated people with clipboards," says Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project.

Protesters rally outside of a Hardee's restaurant on Feb. 13, 2017 in St Louis, Mo., in support of raising the minimum wage.
Jeff Curry / Getty Images
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Protesters rally outside of a Hardee's restaurant on Feb. 13, 2017, in St Louis, Mo., in support of raising the minimum wage.

Citizen-initiated ballot measures to change laws or state constitutions are possible in nearly half of U.S. states. To qualify for the ballot, petitions must gather thousands of signatures. Some campaigns then spend tens of millions of dollars to raise awareness among voters.

The high cost of campaigns often means they can act as policy vehicles for corporate interests, such as apps employing gig workers or sports betting companies.

The Fairness Project, the brainchild of a California-based health care workers union, was created with the idea of using ballot measures to address quality-of-life issues, SEIU-UHW president Dave Regan tells NPR.

"We need to speak to the common good," he says.

Money and messaging help sway conservative voters

To do that, the Fairness Project partners with local advocacy organizations and national nonprofits to provide the technical expertise needed to run a ballot campaign.

That means surveying voters early in the process to gauge whether an issue has enough public support to succeed, and helping to set up signature-gathering. The group also vets the language of the proposed constitutional amendment or statute to make sure it can withstand legal challenges, says Hall.

When it comes to public messaging, the Fairness Project tests which narratives will sway the largest number of voters. For example, talking about bringing voters' federal tax dollars back to their state may get more votes for Medicaid expansion than talking about it as a benefit program.

"Folks who can separate these issues from their partisan identity are the folks that get us over the finish line in these conservative states," says Hall.

Financing is another part of the process. The Fairness Project sometimes contributes directly to the state-level campaigns that they work with, but is rarely the largest donor, according to campaign finance records. Other financial backers of the measures include dark money groups, progressive nonprofits or, in the case of Medicaid expansion, business and health care associations.

The Fairness Project, which operates as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit "social welfare" organization, does not have to disclose its funders or all of its activities, drawing criticism from a right-leaning research group that investigates environmentalist and union spending.

Communications and digital strategy director Alexis Magnan-Callaway declined to share a list of Fairness Project funders with NPR, but says unions, foundations and individuals "contribute to our work."

A "Polling Place" sign is seen during Primary Election Day at Barack Obama Elementary School on August 2, 2022 in St Louis, Mo.
Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images
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A "Polling Place" sign is seen during primary Election Day at Barack Obama Elementary School on Aug. 2, 2022, in St Louis, Mo.

Abortion has shaken up the ballot measure space

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion last year, all state ballot measures affirming abortion rights have been approved, and all of those to restrict the right have been rejected.

The Fairness Project was involved with a $40 million campaign to pass Prop 3 in Michigan last year, which codified abortion rights in that state. It's now exploring such measures in several more states where abortion is restricted or banned.

These plans come as state legislatures move to clamp down on the ballot process. Lawmakers in at least four states — Ohio, Florida, Idaho and Missouri — have recently introduced or advanced measures to make citizen-initiated measures more difficult to run or to pass. Last year, 11 state legislatures introduced or advanced bills that would introduce new barriers.

In Missouri, Republican state Rep. Mike Henderson told his colleagues during a recent session that the state constitution has become too easy to edit.

"I believe that the Missouri constitution is a living document, but not an ever-expanding document," he said. Henderson also argued that citizens of Missouri may not understand what they're voting on, and that such campaigns can be intentionally misleading.

The state House of Representatives later approved a resolution he proposed, which calls for raising the threshold to pass citizen-initiated ballot measures from a simple majority to 60%. However, Democrats have called the measure itself misleading, because it opens with language about only allowing U.S. citizens to vote, something already enshrined in the Missouri constitution.

"The effort to curtail the initiative process seems to me like a purely political power play," says David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

He says lawmakers are likely trying to head off future abortion rights ballot measures, and want to keep the power to make laws, or introduce constitutional amendments, for themselves.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.