Domestic Affairs

In Defense of Direct Democracy

On Nov. 6, 2018, eyes around the country were fixed to TV screens as people anxiously awaited that night’s election returns. But in Idaho, the campaigners for a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid were able to breathe a sigh of relief. Early into the night, it had become clear that Medicaid expansion would sail to victory by an overwhelming margin.

The groundwork for this vote began the year before. Since Medicaid expansion was proposed to the voters through the ballot initiative process, organizers first had to collect enough signatures to get the proposition up for election. Driving around the very rural and very conservative state in a 1977 Dodge RV, Luke Mayville, Emily Strizich and Garrett Strizich set out to do just that. The RV served as a billboard as well as transportation. It was painted forest green and campaign slogans were sketched into its exterior.

This RV would go on to become the symbol for the grassroots organization Reclaim Idaho, which was co-founded by Mayville and the Strizichs. Mobilizing a group of dedicated volunteers, Reclaim Idaho led the signature collection effort that would eventually surpass the required 56,000 signature total needed to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot. Any initial hesitation would disappear as voters seemed supportive of the campaign. Emily Stizich stated that talking to voters was her “antidote to hopelessness,” and that hearing people’s personal stories underscored the urgent need for change. 

Leading up to the election, Mayville, who I spoke with for this article, was cautiously optimistic. Idahoans of all political stripes had suffered from the state’s refusal to close the coverage gap, and rural hospitals in the state were in desperate need of the funds that additional federal dollars would bring. But even Mayville was surprised by the magnitude of their victory. “We didn’t predict we would win with over 60% of the vote,” he said, “and we definitely didn’t predict we would win in almost every county.”

The Ballot Initiative in Idaho

Reclaim Idaho’s victory never would have been possible if Idaho was one of the twenty-six states without a process for citizen proposed ballot initiatives. The Republicans, who dominate Idaho politics, had previously closed the door to Medicaid expansion despite its popularity. As Mayville described to me, in a state in which the Republican primary largely determines the outcome of who wins office, policy issues outside of the GOP agenda — determined by ideological activist and like-minded special interests — are unlikely to get much attention. This made the initiative “an incredibly valuable tool” for going around a legislature that was “unresponsive to the basic needs and interests of the majority of the population.”

Idaho’s successful Medicaid expansion vote represented the potential power of the initiative process. Reclaim Idaho looked to replicate their success with a still ongoing campaign for an initiative to increase funding for education. The majority of state Republicans and opposition interest groups, however, took the opposite lesson. Worry developed around the prospect of Reclaim Idaho’s success at the ballot box creating a new path for liberal policies in a state where Democrats have been shut out of the legislative majority since 1960. So, Idaho Republicans got to work, the people be damned.

While Republicans ultimately enacted Medicaid expansion, they first attempted to weaken the bill by adding burdensome work requirements and other restrictions. Then, in the most recent session, the Republicans moved to restrict the use of ballot initiative itself. Under the new bill, signed into law by the Republican Governor in April, lawmakers established new geographic requirements for initiatives, so that they must receive signatures from all 35 legislative districts in Idaho, instead of the previous 18 district requirement. That would mean campaigners would need to cover every corner of the state, including extremely remote locations where signature collection is difficult. 

According to Mayville, the Republicans and special interests who pushed for the anti-initiative law were motivated primarily by fear. Whether it be of marijuana legalization, minimum wage increases or additional business regulations, Mayville told me that those who supported the bill were worried about what could pass next via ballot initiative. “And the impetus for all of it was seeing the success of Medicaid expansion because that proved the initiative process could be used… and that’s something they don’t want to see in the future,” Mayville said.

What is happening in Idaho is not unique. In recent years, Republicans in states all over the country have attempted to subvert the interests of their constituents by restricting the initiative. The New York Times reports that in 2021 alone, 19 bills have been signed by Republicans Governors that make ballot initiatives harder to carry out. With attacks increasing by the day, direct democracy, if it is to survive, needs outspoken defenders.

The Case for Direct Democracy

To understand the threat posed by the Republican efforts to undermine direct democracy, one needs to go back to before the ballot initiative’s adoption. The ballot initiative first entered into American politics during the Populist and Progressive eras. In the face of politicians who were unresponsive to the people — demonstrated by unchecked corporate monopolies and massive inequality — reformers sought to increase the public influence over politics. Around the turn of the 20th century, states, predominantly in the west, started adopting provisions for initiatives (citizen initiated proposals put to a public vote) and referendums (government initiated proposals put to a public vote). Through the newly created processes, citizens approved proposals that expanded women’s suffrage, established eight-hour work days, and made changes to public education.

In many ways, the problems of today parallel those that reformers addressed early on. Fights over corporate monopolies once again are resurfacing. Income inequality is now higher than it has been at any point since the 1920’s. And the public rightfully feels that politicians are not representing their voices. Political scientists Jeffery Lax and Justin Phillips found that states adopted policies that are congruent with popular majorities only 48% of the time — less than if policy was decided by flipping a coin.

The causes of the wide gap between public opinion and policy, also known as democratic drift, are multi-faceted. As described previously while discussing Idaho’s legislative unresponsiveness, party politics and the outsized influence of special interests likely play a role. Representative democracy will always be an imperfect medium for translating public opinion. Electoral winners can frame a mandate in their own terms, generally in line with their partisan political positions, while their supporters are likely to have less homogenous beliefs. Moreover, courts and administrative agencies are by nature less responsive to the public’s will. These factors form part of the case made by John Matsusaka, a leading scholar of direct democracy, in his recent book on the subject. “Without doubt,” Matsusaka concludes, “the structure of American government has evolved over the past century in ways that increase the distance between ordinary people and policy decisions.”

Ballot initiatives, therefore, ought to be a helpful tool in reorienting politics. Recent evidence appears to prove this theory true. In 2020, for example, through ballot initiatives, four states legalized recreational marijuana, one increased the minimum wage, one increased funding of education by raising taxes on incomes above $250,000, and two removed provisions allowing slavery to be used in criminal punishment. These successes — though some are long overdue —  testify to the broad range of issues that have popular support but face resistance among the political class. Direct democracy gives voters the power to respond to these issues head-on.

Responding to Critics

It is in the backdrop of progressive victories using ballot initiatives that Republican lawmakers have mobilized against direct democracy. All the while, many on the left have been hesitant to put up much of a defense. Painful memories of Brexit or Trump’s seeming populism have given credence to skeptics of direct democracy. They argue, the public is not capable of making rational, well-informed policy decisions. The framers of the Constitution, as articulated in the Federalist Papers, were fearful of direct democracy. Why shouldn’t we be?

While it is true that Madison prescribed that “[popular] passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government,” and it was therefore the job of elected representatives to “refine and enlarge the public views,” he also understood that good government requires some amount of “fidelity to… the happiness of the people.” The status quo demonstrates that we are lacking in this measure. Since alternative institutions insufficiently reflect the public viewpoint, referendums and initiatives are important, even necessary, workarounds. By no means should direct democracy be the sole method of policymaking, but it can and should coexist with the branches of government, existing alongside them to correct their shortcomings.

Like any system of conducting politics, direct democracy is not without its flaws. Over a century of use in the U.S. proves this to be the case. Special interests groups can deploy their resources to try to influence elections. The public can be persuaded to pass discriminatory initiatives. And, the rise of misinformation threatens the public’s ability to make informed choices. Advocates of direct democracy should understand these concerns and look to create mechanisms to mitigate them without throwing out the practice wholesale, because direct democracy is ultimately worth saving.


Politics feel broken. Politicians routinely ignore the opinions of their voters, resulting not only in policy disconnect, but public disaffection and declining trust. Direct democracy addresses this crisis. Initiatives allow voters to enact policy in line with their interests. But more importantly, Mayville reiterated to me in our interview that bringing people into a governing role can improve politics in the long run. “What we have come to believe is that initiatives are important not just for the policy change you achieve.” Rather, “it’s the organizing you do along the way that can change the politics.” 

Direct democracy requires that people engage in the political process, and groups like Reclaim Idaho help to build, in Mayville’s words, “statewide organizations of active citizens.” While it is difficult to think of elections as anything other than divisive, the hard work being carried out in Idaho shows that democratic advocates can have it another way. The battle ahead involves making sure these avenues remain open, making sure that direct democracy is protected.

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