Nearly lost in the uproar over “hanging chads” in Florida, voters in at least 42 other states considered some 205 pieces of proposed legislation, ranging from animal protection to school vouchers to gay marriage; of these, about a third (39 percent) were initiated by citizens themselves.1 As in previous years, Arizona, California, Colorado, North Dakota, and Oregon generated more than half (56 percent) of all citizen-initiated ballot measures, nationally.

Sometimes called “direct democracy,” the citizen-initiative purportedly expands democratic participation. Proponents, spanning the political spectrum from Ralph Nader to Dick Armey, call attention to roots in the populist and progressive reform movements of the last century. They argue that the process is an essential check on the influence of moneyed special interests over elected officials—empowering ordinary citizens by enabling them to make law at the ballot box. Nader has called it “the citizen activist’s ‘ace in the hole’.”

On the other hand, critics doubt the care and attention voters actually devote to understanding ballot questions. Citing such negative influences as ambiguous or simplistic wording, misrepresentation of alternatives and manipulative framing in the media, they contend that the electorate is rarely adequately informed. What’s more, voters are encouraged to brush aside consideration of social, fiscal and political impact. Finally, once adopted, amending or repealing a ballot measure requires action by two-thirds of the legislature (a risky proposition). Political columnist David Broder, for one, insists that this majoritarian version of democracy threatens to undermine the very foundations of representative government.

Either way, the growing popularity of the citizen-initiative as a form of mass political involvement means that public policy is no longer the exclusive domain of elected and appointed officials. As a barometer of our progress toward becoming a just society, citizen-initiated legislation may be a new opening for those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” or a looming threat to the hard-won social and political reforms of the 1960s. Bottom line: who benefits and who decides?

Conceived over a century ago, the citizen-initiative process challenged powerful political insiders. Over time, statewide ballot initiatives introduced and championed by citizen groups have extended the vote to women, established the eight-hour workday, repealed archaic “blue laws” enforcing Sunday closings, and mandated direct election of US Senators by the people. According to Teddy Roosevelt, the object was not “to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.”

The citizen-initiative fell into decades of relative disuse until 1978, when California’s Proposition 13 loosed an anti-tax backlash that swept the country. Since then, a wave of crabgrass populism has revitalized the notion of legislation originating directly from the people. In 1986 Californians adopted the nation’s first “official English” legislation by ballot initiative, inspiring similar measures in 37 other states. Flushed with success, a conservative bloc of wealthy Californians orchestrated a spate of well funded, media-driven campaigns tapping the electorate’s fears, prejudices and distrust of government. During the 1990s California voters approved restricting access to basic public services for non-citizens (1994), “ending racial preferences” (1996) and mandating English-only instruction in the public schools (1998).

Appearing on the 1996 ballot as Proposition 209, the deceptively worded California Civil Rights Initiative banned affirmative action in public employment, public education and public contracting. Ward Connerly, black conservative, member of the California Regents and an outspoken foe of affirmative action, lent a dark public face to the campaign. The fiction that race-conscious policies constituted “reverse discrimination” fueled a media barrage that created little sympathy in the State House—and even less among the electorate, which voted 54 percent in favor of scrapping affirmative action. Exit polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times confirmed that the staunchest support for 209 came from white males over 40, middle-income and self-identified as conservative Republicans or Independents.

Two years later, Ron Unz, a conservative Republican and Silicon Valley millionaire with no background in education, enlisted these same voters in his English for the Children initiative. Early on, proponents framed the issue negatively, disparaging bilingual instruction as ineffective and its supporters as charlatans. The Unz campaign cleverly cast itself in the classic populist mold: angry taxpayers confronting an unresponsive political system corrupted by entrenched “special interests.” Californians proved ripe for yet another appeal to their suspicions, intolerance and frustrations. But the lopsided 61-39 percent victory over bilingual education owed much to media coverage that dutifully, and uncritically, reported the reams of misinformation and hyperbole served up by campaign supporters.

Beyond California, voters in Arizona, Oregon and Washington have since approved similar ballot measures dismantling affirmative action and bilingual education, blurring time-honored boundaries between church and state, limiting the rights of gays and lesbians, and blocking various “smart growth” proposals for regulating urban sprawl. In the last three years, Unz has bankrolled ballot initiatives banning bilingual instruction in California, Arizona and Colorado; Connerly has also exported his crusade to other states.

Obviously, to win a ballot contest one side must mobilize a majority of the voters behind its position. According to social scientists, collective action (which includes voting) is premised on a collective interpretation of the problem or situation at hand—subject to the interests, preferences and biases of bona fide group members. In public policy, who benefits reflects the popular accord on who’s in the group and who’s out (hence, who matters and who doesn’t). (See the article on framing by William Gamson, Nonprofit Quarterly, December 2000.) Experience suggests that groups’ social status, economic condition and degree of political access are decisive factors in who gets a meaningful voice in public policy. Research indicates that in states with histories of sharp division along racial or ethnic lines policies adopted through ballot initiatives tend to target minorities.

In a constitutional republic such as this one, voting is a critical measure of people’s confidence in our political institutions. That said, the 40-year trend of decreasing voter turnout in national, state and local elections suggests that a significant segment of US citizens no longer feel their vote matters. The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) confirms that less than half of the nation’s eligible voting age population decided the 1996 presidential race; similarly, 1998’s Congressional contests attracted barely one-third of the voting public. Even with the promise of an epic struggle of ideas and ideologies, the first presidential election of the new millennium attracted only 51 percent of all eligible voters.

Disaggregated by race, voter turnout statistics are even more disturbing. Notwithstanding 35 years of federal voting protections and massive voter registration-education efforts in communities of color, barriers to exercising this fundamental right persist. In fact, the rate of African-American and Latino participation has declined steadily since 1994. Litigation backed by numerous studies documenting racial disparities at the polls suggests that “voter apathy” is not sufficient explanation for low voter turnout in these communities. Investigating alleged voting irregularities in Florida, the US Commission for Civil Rights faulted questionable statutory provisions, widespread procedural errors, official ineptitude and antiquated voting machinery for disenfranchising eligible black voters. Comparable allegations have surfaced in New York state and elsewhere.

Turning to the disconcerting evidence of a “class skew” in US voting patterns, we find that low-income voter turnout (families with annual earnings less than $5,000) declined by 12 percent between 1990 and 1994—even as their registration rates climbed. Conversely, participation by voters from the highest-income brackets increased markedly in that same period. David Callahan, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, recalls that the apparent demobilization of low-income voters coincided with the strident promotion of the “Contract with America,” part of the neo-conservative campaign against welfare that fueled the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

Finally, “following the money” leads to troubling conclusions about who gets to raise the questions appearing on the ballot in the first place. Studies of ballot campaign outcomes find no clear advantage for elite economic interests; then again, these studies reliably underestimate the growing presence and influence of wealthy conservatives, right-leaning foundations and think tanks, and sound bite savvy celebrity experts behind ostensibly citizen-inspired ballot measures.

Still, few insiders deny that escalating spending levels are creating an “initiative industry” of professional political consultants, legal advisers, media packagers, pollsters, and signature collectors. In 1992, 21 states spent just over $117.3 million on initiative campaigns; a scant six years later, California alone spent a staggering $257 million—more than double that spent by all candidates running for statewide office that year. In the last election, Question 5 on the Massachusetts ballot (a “patient’s bill of rights”) was soundly defeated—at a total cost of $5.4 million. The “No on 5 Coalition,” representing the interests of anti-tax groups, major insurers and the HMOs, accounted for 94 percent of the total spent on the question ($5,064,802) and one-third of all spending on state ballot questions that year.

Ironically, at a time of widespread support for term limits and campaign finance reform, there are literally no limits on dollars raised and spent on initiative campaigns. For its part, the US Supreme Court has stymied state efforts to rein in spending on ballot campaigns, insisting that, unlike a politician, “you can’t corrupt a piece of paper.”

The conspicuous involvement of big money and corporate media in framing the issues and “manufacturing consent” strongly suggests that a self-possessed and highly sophisticated right-wing populist movement (with access to some very deep pockets) has hijacked the ballot initiative process. These efforts under-gird the GOP’s announced intent of consolidating its support among white ethnics while establishing conservative beachheads in communities of color.

Nevertheless, and despite the obvious drawbacks and contradictions, nonprofits can ill afford to cede their right to a role in public affairs. Whether an initiative prevails or not, simply submitting the question to a ballot lends it visibility as a rallying point for further debate, fundraising and base-building. Sitting on the sidelines is both unthinkable and, thankfully, unnecessary. IRS and FEC regulations place no restrictions on cause-related advocacy; within certain limits, even lobbying is permissible without jeopardy to one’s tax-exempt status. (See the article by Thomas Raffa, Nonprofit Quarterly, December 2000.)

Drawing lessons from the California experience, the most critical stage of the process—and the most fruitful focus for nonprofit activism—is clearly the struggle over the frame and images driving arguments and counter-arguments. Criticism of media bias and demands for responsible representation of the issues is also appropriate. Nothing in the tax code or election laws prohibits nonprofits from critically examining a ballot initiative in terms of its social and political context, the interests and agendas at work, and the relative merits and implications of arguments for and against. The law allows sponsorship and participation in nonpartisan educational forums, debates, rallies and similar public events. Finally, with careful thought and thorough documentation, the IRS will even tolerate a modest degree of direct involvement in the ballot campaign itself.

Over the years, nonprofits have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for assembling smart and imaginative people, generating powerful and provocative ideas, and supporting new relationships, new leadership and new organizations. Today, as communities across the nation grapple with thorny issues of race, rights, respect and social change, nonprofits must begin cultivating the kind of broad participation, critical inquiry and honest dialogue central to a more inclusive, empowering and sustainable democratic vision.

1. There are three kinds of ballot measures: initiatives, or proposals placed on the ballot by citizens; referendums, proposals “referred” to the people by the legislature; and recall petitions, generated by voters to remove an elected official from office. Although 39 states bring legislative measures before the people, only 24 allow citizen-initiated ballot measures.

Ty dePass is an associate editor with the Nonprofit Quarterly.