« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

How the West’s populist politics play out at the ballot box

Voter-driven ballot initiatives are a powerful force during the Western election season.


The Arizona Healthy Working Families Initiative group delivers more than 270,000 signatures to the elections office in Phoenix, enough to put a measure on the ballot to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 and provide earned sick days to workers.
Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

A person making minimum wage in Arizona earns $8.05 an hour. At full-time, that adds up to less than $17,000 a year, before taxes — better than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, but still not enough to lift workers above the federal poverty line. Nevertheless, this spring, state lawmakers rejected a modest, incremental wage hike, to $9.50 by 2020.

Yet economic-justice activists and union supporters were unfazed by the legislative failure. That’s because — like most Westerners — they had another option: They could put the question directly to voters. This summer, they gathered enough petition signatures to put a more ambitious initiative on the November ballot. Proposition 206 would raise the minimum wage to $10 in 2017, and then gradually to $12 by 2020. A recent Arizona poll found that voters support it by a 2-to-1 margin. Similar measures are on the ballots in Colorado and Washington.

Every Western state except New Mexico allows citizens to make new laws at the ballot box, compared to just over half of all states. The region embraced direct democracy 100 years ago as a populist response to corporate power and ineffective government. This election season, individual states will vote on approving universal healthcare, legalizing assisted death for terminally ill patients, creating the country’s first carbon tax, and repealing the death penalty. And in addition to wage hikes, multiple states will consider measures that would establish tougher background checks for gun and ammo sales, and legalize marijuana. Those initiatives are attracting big bucks from national organizations and wealthy donors, making the West a proving ground for certain progressive causes.

“Washington gridlock (is) forcing states to tackle these issues,” says Bill Scheel, the campaign manager for the Arizona wage hike. And in Republican-controlled states, he adds, “the only way we’re going to move these issues is through the ballot box.”


The enthusiasm for ballot initiatives can be traced back to 1978, when Californians approved Proposition 13, which radically cut property taxes and capped future tax increases. It showed the sweeping power of direct democracy and triggered similar reforms nationwide. Some even credit it with kick-starting the modern conservative movement.

Now, liberal groups are increasingly using ballot measures to pursue far-reaching reforms of their own. As of September, the New York-based Everytown for Gun Safety had spent more than $3.2 million on Nevada’s Question 1, which would require any sale or transfer of a firearm to go through a licensed gun dealer who can run federal background checks. The Fairness Project, backed by California unions, has contributed $338,000 to the Arizona minimum wage campaign, and $200,000 each to the campaigns in Colorado and Washington.

Billionaire benefactors, often from the tech world, have also bankrolled campaigns. Sean Parker, the former Facebook president, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to background-check and pot legalization campaigns in Nevada and California. Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist and founding investor in Amazon, has given $500,000 to the Washington minimum wage campaign, and $275,000 to the Nevada gun control measure.

Such spending reflects the fact that it’s increasingly difficult for purely grassroots initiatives to reach the ballot, says Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political science professor. Most states require petition signatures from 5 to 10 percent of registered voters, and with populations growing in many Western states, campaigns have to spend ever more time and money to meet that mark. Case in point: Two grassroots anti-fracking campaigns in Colorado came up short on signatures after relying mostly on volunteers, while the energy industry spent readily from a $16.8 million war chest to urge citizens to “decline to sign.”

But Donovan says the surge of money from national groups and wealthy individuals isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Ironically, it levels the playing field” for progressive causes, he says, because corporations and industry trade groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars each election to torpedo ballot measures that could dent their bottom lines. In Colorado and Arizona, restaurant associations are contributing to defeat the minimum-wage hikes, while a handful of health-care and insurance providers have each given between $250,000 and $1 million to kill Colorado’s universal health-care initiative.

Interestingly, politicians on both sides of the aisle are also resisting many of these initiatives. Many Democratic lawmakers and candidates have declined to endorse the Washington carbon tax and the Colorado health-care measure. Party leaders have criticized funding mechanisms, and even backed away from previous support on those issues.

But backers believe their efforts can bring voters to the polls and sway skittish politicians, especially in an election when people are less than excited about the presidential candidates. In at least one case, the threat of a ballot vote propelled lawmakers into action: This spring, after a slightly more aggressive wage-hike measure was certified for the California ballot, legislators passed a law to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2022. Proponents then withdrew their initiative — proof, says The Fairness Project’s executive director Ryan Johnson, that “ballot initiatives serve as really powerful messages to elected officials.”

Correspondent Joshua Zaffos writes from Fort Collins, Colorado.  

Clarification: This story earlier stated that Washington state Democrats are opposing a state carbon-tax measure. While the state party and many party leaders have taken that position, some party members and candidates are supporting the cause.