The Undermining of Direct Democracy and How Covid-19 Exacerbated Attacks on Ballots Measures in 2020

A new Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund report details the repression of ballot initiatives in 2020.

Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and state legislatures’ centralization of power have cut off and delayed democratic change in most states. In response, movements have turned to direct democracy ballot initiatives to introduce new ideas, make gains and resist reactionary agendas. We see this dynamic in states like Florida, Missouri, Arizona, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and others.

The ballot initiative process, fought for by anti-corporate movements a century ago, has become a key mechanism-of-last-resort for social movement campaigns hoping to tax the rich, rein in corporate power, end gerrymandering, protect the right to vote, ban fracking, raise the minimum wage, protect workers and otherwise propose new ideas. Ballot initiatives advanced by communities partnering with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) have faced similar obstruction in Ohio, Washington and Oregon, including Columbus, Ohio’s 2020  Columbus Community Bill of Rights city charter amendment to assert the right of people and ecosystems to “clean water, air, and soil.” These initiatives all challenge some of the most reactionary and regressive legal doctrines practiced in the United States*.

Not surprisingly, as these movements turn to direct democracy, the political establishment has taken an increased interest in the process itself. The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center recently documented a nationwide attack by state legislators on the ballot initiative process in 2019. That year, the Strategy Center found 120 bills introduced in 16 states to weaken the ballot initiative process.

Beyond the legislative attack on the process, we observe the political application of administrative law and pre-election court rulings to keep anti-establishment ballot initiatives off the ballot—stopping votes from taking place. These tactics have all obstructed a wave of direct democracy initiatives from appearing on ballots across the nation.

Covid-19 has exacerbated these dynamics. As the virus hit, many ballot initiative campaigns were forced to temporarily suspend signature gathering. However, remedies to protect the process were few and far between. Courts and states generally ruled that the process did not need to be protected, forcing many campaigns to suspend their efforts.

This CELDF report provides a (non-comprehensive) survey for 2020, of ballot initiatives that have been censored from their respective ballots. It also offers a look at some 2020 efforts to undermine the process itself.

Each 2020 initiative below is the result of thousands of volunteer hours. Neighbors faced a community problem, and then took action to address that problem. Government and corporate attorneys then took their own action, against the proposed laws.

The examples in this report exemplify this modern dynamic.

CELDF has been partnering with grassroots groups and local governments for decades, to stand up for their communities and fight back—building a movement to secure the authority of people and their communities to establish strong protections for civil, human, and ecosystem rights. The Covid-19 pandemic makes such bottom-up governance even more essential.

For more information please reach out to us at

This report was prepared by Simon Davis-Cohen with help from his colleagues.

Read the Report

*CELDF is supporting seven Ohio communities, representing Rights of Nature and anti-corporate power ballot measures, in a federal civil rights case against the State of Ohio. The case has been appealed to the Sixth Circuit. Plaintiffs are petitioners for initiative campaigns that involved thousands of volunteer hours to successfully qualify measures, which often faced legal opposition from the oil and gas industry. The measures were systematically blocked from the ballot by an election apparatus controlled by the Ohio Secretary of State and backed by Ohio’s courts. (Beiersdorfer v. La Rose, et al. — No. 20-3557)

“Vote!” by kgroovy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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