close up of someone one signing a petition on clipboard
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“That is not the way our democracy should work.”

Hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions this year backing proposed ballot initiatives in Arizona, Arkansas, and Michigan.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and Arizona have placed constitutional amendments on the ballot proposing to make it harder to approve citizen initiatives in the future.

The Republican pushback against the initiative process is part of a several-year trend that gained steam as Democratic-aligned groups have increasingly used petitions to force public votes on issues that Republican-led legislatures have opposed. 

Some Democrats contend Republicans are subverting the will of the people by making the ballot initiative process more difficult.

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“What is happening now is just a web of technicalities to thwart the process in states where voters are using the people’s tool to make an immediate positive change in their lives,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which has worked with progressive groups sponsoring the blocked initiatives.

“That is not the way our democracy should work,” she added.

Republicans who have thrown up hurdles to initiative petitions contend they are protecting the integrity of the lawmaking process against well-funded interest groups trying to bend state policies in their favor.

About half the states allow citizen initiatives, in which petition signers can bypass a legislature to place proposed laws or constitutional changes directly before voters. But executive or judicial officials often still have some role in the process, typically by certifying that the ballot wording is clear and accurate and that petition circulators gathered enough valid signatures of registered voters.

In Arizona, the primarily Republican-appointed Supreme Court recently blocked a proposed constitutional amendment that would have extended early voting and limited lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The measure also would have specifically prohibited the Legislature from overturning the results of presidential elections, which some Republicans had explored after then- President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.

After a lower court initially ruled the measure could appear on the November ballot, Arizona’s high court instructed the judge to reconsider. Then it upheld a subsequent ruling throwing out enough petition signatures to prevent the initiative from qualifying for the ballot.

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Still on the ballot are several other amendments referred by Arizona’s Republican-led Legislature. Those measures would limit initiatives to a single subject, require a 60% supermajority to approve tax proposals and expand the Legislature’s authority to change voter-approved initiatives.

Those proposals come after Arizona Republicans have spent the past decade enacting laws making it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. State laws now require petition sheets to be precisely printed and ban the use of a copy machine to create new ones. Other laws require paid circulators to include their registration number on each petition sheet, get it notarized and check a box saying they were paid.

“The effect is to make it much harder, much more expensive to get the signatures to put one of these propositions on the ballot,” said Terry Goddard, a Democrat who served as the state’s attorney general from 2003 through 2011.

After years of trying, Goddard finally succeeded this year in getting an initiative on the ballot that would require nonprofit groups that spend large amounts on elections to reveal their donors.

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