Only about half of states in the U.S. have provisions that allow for ballot initiatives or ballot measures. While the idea sounds very democratic and has a lot of populist appeal, their availability has resulted in such measures now being a part of every election cycle.
My home state of Colorado is a great example because it has one of the least stringent set of requirements. Essentially, all you have to do is narrowly define your initiative to one topic and get some signatures. The result is that it takes very little to fashion legislation or even codify things into our state constitution.
This year, Colorado has a couple of ballot initiatives that could upturn private property rights and Colorado’s long-established water right laws. In the latter case, the legislature would never have passed a law such as this, but the proponents have worded it in a way that uninformed voters think they are protecting water and water quality.
Even though it may be a really bad idea, it could take $10-$15 million to defeat this ballot initiative, depending on how many dollars the proponents can raise. This initiative, however, looks like it will be relatively easy to defeat, as it’s vehemently opposed by cities and municipalities, as well as oil and gas and other big industry in Colorado. So, in this instance, the money shouldn’t be hard to raise, which means agriculture’s contribution will be a lesser financial commitment, and whatever credibility and political clout it can muster toward the effort.
The problem for agriculture will come when one of these initiatives is targeted narrowly at agriculture. Without the other constituent groups involved, even the craziest of state initiatives would take $3-5 million to defeat. The activists have figured it out; they have the cash and know that agriculture simply won’t be able to defend itself from this process over the long term.
The ballot initiative process must be changed in Colorado and other states. Everyone recognizes the process is fundamentally flawed, and will devastate small business and industries over time. The question is how does one make the argument in such a way that voters understand the flaws and will vote to actually give up some of their power to have a say in the process?
Moving beyond Colorado, the amount of money to propose or defeat a ballot initiative in a state like California is staggering. The process has been perverted, as any group or individual with an agenda and $20 million can buy an outcome they could never achieve through representative government.