WASHINGTON — More than 14 months before the next general election, voters fed-up with state lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands, gathering signatures to repeal the most legislation in more than a decade.
Citizen-initiated ballot measures are one response to polarized statehouses, where laws pass by slim margins along party lines. Around the country, five referendums aimed at overturning legislation have already qualified for the 2012 ballot, the most in a single year since 1998. That’s on top of a record 10 recall attempts to oust politicians this year.
Ballot measures signal “popular dissatisfaction with government actions, and often subside if government tends to be more reflective of public values,” Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group, said by telephone. “The initiative process becomes an important tool, especially when government becomes unaccountable.”
Repeal efforts led by advocates for collective bargaining and restrictions on illegal immigrants follow successful drives that overturned the legalization of gay marriage in California in 2008 and a change to the tax code in Maine last year.
The initiative process was born in the early 1900s during a populist movement against railroad corporations’ perceived stranglehold on government, Holman said. A 1978 California referendum known as Proposition 13, limiting property taxes, helped ignite a nationwide antitax movement and inspired similar measures in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
In 2012, Idaho voters will be asked to overturn measures that repealed some collective-bargaining rights for teachers and instituted merit pay. The provisions were passed earlier this year by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Butch Otter, who has spoken at tea party rallies.
South Dakota voters will consider throwing out a bill spearheaded by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, to establish a fund that Democrats say siphons money for education and health care. The Republican-dominated Legislature passed the measure in March.
In Maryland, freshman Delegate Neil Parrott, former leader of a tea party group, is campaigning for voters to reject a law allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at community colleges, approved in May by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“You can put an awful lot of pressure on a Legislature by going straight to the people,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida politics professor who studies ballot initiatives. “There has definitely been that increase in terms of trying to overturn what a Legislature recently enacted.”
Gray Davis, the former California governor who was recalled in 2003, said he isn’t surprised by an increase in referendums and recalls.
“In difficult times, people don’t cut legislators any slack,” Davis, now a lawyer with Loeb & Loeb in Los Angeles, said in an interview. “A recall has a way of focusing a legislator’s attention.”
For five referendums to have qualified already for 2012 ballots is “remarkable,” said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most organizations don’t circulate petitions until the January or February before the November vote, she said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see us pass 1998’s record” of six referendums, she said in a telephone interview from Denver.
Of 10 recalls for state lawmakers scheduled this year, all but three take aim at Republicans. Just 20 previous recalls have taken place since 1913, according to the legislatures’ group.
Wisconsin voters recalled two Republican senators in an election this month fueled by anger at Gov. Scott Walker’s use of Republican legislative majorities to curb collective bargaining for most public employees. Four other Republicans and three Democrats survived similar efforts. Walker’s opponents have pledged to mount a recall against him beginning next year.
Just five states allow off-year citizen-initiated ballot measures, Bowser said.
In Maine, where Republicans in January took control of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in almost 40 years, a group called Protect Maine Votes seeks to restore election-day voter registration, repealed in June.
Ohio voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to strike a law restricting collective bargaining for public employees. The bill was signed by Governor John Kasich in March after passing the Legislature controlled by his fellow Republicans. We Are Ohio, a coalition of labor leaders, former Governor Ted Strickland and other Democrats submitted almost four times the number of signatures needed for a referendum.
In a speech, Strickland called the vote “the most important election in America in terms of sending a message to the radical leadership of the Republican Party.”
Even an unsuccessful recall or referendum sends a message to lawmakers, California’s Davis said.
“If they’re not being heard at town halls and over the Internet through tweets, then I don’t blame them if they take advantage of whatever legal means they have to get the attention of public officials who aren’t listening,” Davis said.