Article

Impact of direct democracy on Colorado state politics

Authors:
To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the author.

Abstract

Colorado has a rich history of direct democracy. The most widely used form of direct democracy-the so-called citizen initiative- allows individuals and groups to circulate petitions in an effort to qualify a statutory or constitutional measure on the ballot for a statewide vote.1 For nearly a century, the initiative has shaped the political landscape of Colorado. As we have seen in earlier chapters, many Coloradans consider direct democracy the bane of the state's existence, allowing disjointed and destabilizing policies to become embedded into the state constitution. Others, though, view the initiative process as the state's salvation, rightfully returning the policymaking process to the people. Regardless of which extreme depiction is a more accurate portrayal of the initiative process, voting on ballot measures has become a permanent fixture in the Centennial State. In the 1990s, Colorado pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli (1996) referred to the initiative process as the state's "New Growth Industry." That description is still apt today. At times over the past century, the process of direct democracy has managed to share equal billing with the traditional institutions of representative democracy, leading some scholars to refer to such a blend in some US states as "hybrid democracy" (Garrett 2005; Kousser and McCubbins 2005). Colorado's experience with the institution of the initiative, adopted during the Progressive Era, is neither unique nor without controversy. As we shall see, Colorado is a high-use initiative state. Immediately following the adoption of direct democracy in 1910, wealthy individuals and economic interests were frequently able to co-opt the plebiscitary mechanism. The irony is rich, as the initiative process in particular was originally advanced by populist and progressive political forces intent on wrestling power from a slate of entrenched interests and the elected officials who did their bidding (Cain and Miller 2001; Goebel 2002). To be sure, since that time citizen groups have placed dozens of liberal and conservative initiatives on the statewide ballot. Voters have cast ballots on initiatives dealing with abortion restrictions, parental rights, hunting and trapping regulations, education vouchers, the expansion of water rights, restrictions on hog farming, the legalization of medical marijuana, the banning of gay marriage, tax and spending limitations, and legislative term limits. Colorful defenders of the initiative process itself-led perhaps most prominently by Douglas Bruce, the author of the notorious 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR)-have helped animate the process over the years. Using populist tropes, they have rather successfully used the language of "us" versus "them" to cast the initiative process as a mechanism for "the people" to keep the state legislature in check and more responsive to citizen demands (Citrin 1996; Smith 1998). After detailing the adoption and early use of direct democracy in Colorado, I trace the recent rise in the number of initiatives on the ballot and the role of money in ballot measure campaigns. In doing so, I highlight some of the more captivating initiative campaigns over the past century and briefly profile the efforts of Douglas Bruce and other initiative proponents. I then assess the impact of increasingly partisan ballot initiatives on minority populations, including racial, ethnic, and sexual-orientation minorities as well as the state's rural residents. Finally, after acknowledging lawmakers' bipartisan attack on the initiative process in recent years, I conclude with normative considerations of the practice of direct democracy in Colorado. As Fred Brown, one of the state's most sage political observers, wrote nearly two decades ago, many see the citizen initiative as "needed as a safety valve, but not as a replacement for the legislative process"; further, election day lawmaking "wouldn't be a problem if we actually had some real deliberation during the initiative process . . . but [instead] we have 30-second sound bites on some very complicated questions" (quoted in Smith 1998: 2-3).

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the author.

ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
Research has found that states using initiatives and referendums have higher turnout, particularly in midterm elections. Existing research has not examined who is mobilized to vote when issues appear on statewide ballots. Building on work by Campbell (1966. “Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change.” In Elections and the Political Order, eds. A. Campbell, P. E. Converse, W. E. Miller, and D. E. Stokes. New York: Wiley), we test whether ballot measures engage and mobilize people who do not fit the profile of regular voters. Using national opinion data from the 2004 and 2006 elections, we find that independents (relative to partisans) exhibited greater awareness of and interest in ballot measures in the midterm election. This pattern is not found in the presidential election, where peripheral voters are likely to be mobilized by the stimulus of the presidential race rather than by ballot measures. Absent salient ballot measures, some episodic independent voters may not be engaged by midterm elections. This suggests that some variation in midterm turnout maybe a function of peripheral voters becoming engaged by ballot measures.
Article
Full-text available
We demonstrate that direct democracy can affect the issues voters consider when evaluating presidential candidates. Priming theory assumes that some voters have latent attitudes or predispositions that can be primed to affect evaluations of political candidates. We demonstrate that: (1) state ballot measures on same sex marriage increased the salience of marriage as an issue that voters used when evaluating presidential candidates in 2004, particularly those voters less interested in the campaign and those likely to be less attentive to the issue prior to the election; and (2) that the primed issue (gay marriage) was a more important factor affecting candidate choice in states where marriage was on the ballot.
Article
Full-text available
Since its inaugural use in Oregon in 1904, direct democracy—as practiced in twenty-seven American states—has garnered its share of defenders and critics. While the debate over the merits and drawbacks of citizen lawmaking remains as contentious as ever, critics and proponents alike usually concur that two extra-legislative tools—the “citizen” initiative and the “popular” referendum—were most effectively used to counteract the legislative might of special interests during the Progressive Era. Citing the clout of corporate monopolies that dominated numerous state legislatures at the turn of the century, contemporary observers of direct democracy approvingly note how citizen groups during the Progressive Era used the mechanisms to take on an array of vested interests. As evidence, they submit the popular adoption of numerous progressive reforms during the 1910s, such as the direct primary, women's suffrage, prohibition, the abolition of the poll tax, home rule for cities and towns, eighthour workdays for women and miners, and the regulation of public utility and railroad monopolies. Circumventing their partisan state legislatures, defenders of the plebiscitary mechanisms evoke how citizens successfully employed the initiative and popular referendum, as one Progressive Era supporter of the “pure” democratic process championed, to rouse “a great forward movement toward stability, justice, and public spirit in American political institutions.”
Article
Full-text available
Why are some statewide citizen initiatives in the American states successful at the polls and others not? Quantitative studies tend to emphasize the aggregate spending of the proponents and opponents of ballot measures when explaining ballot results. Substantial evidence, though, indicates that an array of nonmonetary variables also influence the outcomes of ballot measures. Through a critical case study of the failed 1996 Parental Rights Amendment in Colorado, we examine the impact of several variables typically ignored in more quantitative studies. We find that three variables in particular—the kind and size of financial contributions, grassroots support, and the rhetorical framing of the measure—are significant when explaining why some citizen initiatives succeed and others fail. These findings suggest that future quantitative analyses of the initiative process should take these variables into consideration.
Article
Full-text available
Previous research on the initiative process tends to underestimate the involvement of political parties in ballot measure contests as well as the impact of partisanship on initiative voting. Focusing on recent ballot contests in California, we find that the two major party organizations in California are actively using ballot initiatives to bolster voter turnout for their candidates, divide the opposition with `wedge' issues and promote their own party's platform and ideology. This party involvement in initiative contests seems to be paying off, as partisanship is the strongest predictor of votes on ballot measures in California at both the aggregate and individual levels. More generally, our research - which runs counter to the expectations of Populist and Progressive reformers - shines new light on how political parties are shaping not only the process, but also the politics of direct democracy.