How partisan politics can make ballot measures undemocratic

A fight over wolf management in Alaska shows how lawmakers can undermine citizen-led initiatives.


A voter enters a polling location near Anchorage, Alaska. The final language for ballot measures that voters see is usually decided by those in partisan political offices, potentially impacting the measures’ success.
Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via Getty Images

Ballot measures were originally developed as a way for voters to enact laws that state legislators were either too cowardly or too corrupt to support. Ideally, these initiatives give concerned citizens throughout the West a direct voice on issues important to them. For instance, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that federal courts may not intervene to prevent gerrymandering, ballot initiatives at the state level may be among the best ways to stop this undemocratic practice.

Unfortunately, state legislatures and executive branch officials can employ a variety of tactics to subvert ballot measures, undermining this form of direct democracy. For example, the only information about initiatives that most voters encounter is a brief description on the ballot. In most Western states, either the attorney general or lieutenant governor — not the measure’s proponents — has final say over that language. Thus, whichever party occupies those offices can strongly influence citizens’ perceptions of an initiative — and, ultimately, the law.

Everyone who values democracy should be alarmed by the way lawmakers in recent years have attacked or repealed citizen-led initiatives on lobbying restrictions, Medicaid expansion and other issues. A long struggle over wolf management in Alaska illustrates how entrenched political interests can undermine the will of the people.

In Alaska, hunters can legally shoot wolves from aircraft. Aerial wolf killing is not intended to preserve moose and caribou, or enhance biodiversity; rather, it exists to artificially inflate the numbers of game animals available to hunters. In 1996, it received a lot of negative publicity, and public support declined. Then-Gov. Tony Knowles supported a ballot initiative to outlaw the practice, and his lieutenant governor approved the language that appeared on the ballot. It was clearly worded and closely resembled the description written by the initiative’s proponents. Over 58% of voters supported the ban, and aerial wolf killing was outlawed.

In order to see how well the general public likely understood the wording on the ballot, we — two social scientists at Utah Valley University — conducted a study. We gathered data from undergraduate students in Utah, most of whom were, we assumed, unfamiliar with Alaska wildlife laws. Our results showed that over 82% correctly understood that the initiative was intended to decrease the number of wolves that were killed. In other words, the ballot’s transparent wording was effective.

A complex series of legal reversals followed the 1996 ban. Despite the public’s clear opposition to aerial wolf killing, the Legislature overturned the initiative two years later, with a law allowing hunters to resume the practice. Then, in 2000, while Knowles was still in office, activists placed a referendum on the ballot to repeal the law. The initiative passed; citizens once again succeeded in outlawing killing wolves from planes. But in 2003, the Legislature reversed the measure, undercutting the voters’ decision by passing a bill to legalize the shooting. A new governor, Frank Murkowski, elected in 2002, signed the bill into law.

In 2005, Joel Bennett and Nick Jans gathered enough signatures to, once again, put an initiative on the ballot to ban aerial wolf hunting. But this time, Murkowski’s lieutenant governor was able to choose the wording of the initiative. “(We) were very concerned about the wording of the ballot measure,” Bennett recalled. “The deck can be stacked against you by a hostile administration or just a sloppy job of drafting. It doesn’t take much — just the wrong word or word order can create confusion.” Their concerns were well-founded: The data we gathered from another group of undergraduate students indicated that less than half — only 47% — correctly understood that the initiative was intended to decrease the number of wolves that were killed. The majority misunderstood it.

By the time the measure was voted on in 2008, Sarah Palin was governor. In addition to misleading ballot language, the initiative’s proponents were also fighting a $400,000 “public education” campaign produced by the Palin administration, which supported shooting wolves from aircraft. The government’s talking points were virtually identical to the rhetoric employed by trophy hunting groups that opposed the wolf-killing ban.

This time, unlike in 1996 and 2000, only 45% of voters supported the initiative. Thus, for the first time in Alaska history, a citizen’s initiative to outlaw aerial wolf killing was defeated. After the election, Greg Brown, who owned a whale-watching business in Juneau, remarked, “I work with a bunch of naturalists. Everybody decided they were going to vote against aerial hunting. … It turned out nine of the 12 ended up voting for it … because (of) the way it was worded.”

Ballot initiatives help ordinary people make sure that laws reflect their values and interests, rather than having decisions imposed upon them by governments and corporations. However, activists should be aware that elected officials can employ a variety of tactics to subvert democracy. Citizens who respect democracy — regardless of their party affiliations — should consider proposing initiatives that require nonpartisan bodies to vet ballot language for clarity. They should also consider ballot measures that prevent governors and legislatures from repealing legislation enacted by popular vote. After all, regardless of our politics, we all at some point contend with “representatives” who fail to represent us. 

Alexander Simon is a sociology and environmental studies professor at Utah Valley University. Steven C. Clark is psychology professor and dean of social sciences and humanities at Utah Valley University. This perspective is adapted from their forthcoming scholarly article, “Ballot Measures and the Subversion of Direct Democracy: A Case Study of Ballot Measures to Outlaw Aerial Wolf Killing,” in the journal Society and AnimalsEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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