Bosak: Pennsylvania should consider more direct democracy

Bosak argues that, despite mixed results, ballot initiatives remain something Pennsylvanians should strive for.

Bri Bosak

Bri Bosak

In an election where Republicans maintained the majority in the House of Representatives and Democrats kept control of the Senate, a victory from President Barack Obama meant that Washington saw no real change.

But for states voting on ballot initiatives, the story was a stark contrast.

Back again this year were many of the same issues that appeared on ballots throughout the last decade, issues like marriage, marijuana, gambling and, of course, taxes. This time, however, many states took a different approach than in years past at the polls.

Some of the most notable initiatives took place in Colorado and Washington, where voters passed measures to legalize marijuana use for adults above the age of 21, taxing it similarly to alcohol or cigarettes. Another landmark decision was made by Maine, Maryland and Washington, where citizens voted in favor of referendums endorsing marriage equality.

In total, 38 states voted on 174 propositions this November, including 42 initiatives, 12 referendums and 117 legislative measures.

But as a Pennsylvanian if you are not exactly familiar with initiatives and referendums or aren’t exactly sure what they all mean, there is a reason. And it’s not you.

It’s because we don’t have any in Pennsylvania.

Essentially ballot measures are proposals to enact new laws or constitutional amendments or repeal existing ones by placing them on the ballot for approval or rejection by the electorate. Depending on the state, there can be several different kinds of ballot measures.

An initiative is a proposal of a new law or constitutional amendment that is placed on the ballot by petition, which entails collecting signatures of a certain number of citizens. Of the 24 states to have the initiative process, 18 allow initiatives to propose constitutional amendments and 21 states allow initiatives to propose statutes. In most cases, once a sufficient number of signatures have been collected, the proposal is placed on the ballot for a vote of the people, known as a direct initiative. In some cases, the proposal first goes to the legislature, and if approved by the legislature, is not voted on by the people and recognized as an indirect initiative.

A referendum is a proposal to repeal a law that was previously enacted by the legislature and is placed on the ballot by citizen petition. A total of 24 states permit referendums, most of them states that also permit initiatives.

It’s easy to applaud statewide ballot initiatives, particularly when you think solely in terms of direct democracy and giving power to the people. And especially when those ballot initiatives work for a greater good, like the three states which voted for marriage equality, the first time in the world that rights were given to same-sex couples through a popular vote.

Even so, many are still concerned that statewide ballot initiatives may go the way of special interest groups.

For instance, consider California and genetically modified food. Proposition 37 called for labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms. According to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, it enjoyed broad popular support as of September, by 61 percent. But in the weeks following that poll, support dropped to 44 percent. The reason being that between one poll and the next, voters saw the start of what the Los Angeles Times called a “major television advertising blitz by opponents aimed at changing voters’ minds on the issue.”

Just how big?

Approximately $41 million in campaign contributions have been made to the “No on 37” campaign, according to the Los Angeles Times. And among the campaign’s largest funders were the “Big 6” GMO and pesticide corporations: BASF Plant Science, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Agrosciences, Syngenta and Monsanto. These six corporations dominate the world’s seed, pesticide and genetic engineering industries. Collectively they have contributed more than $20 million to oppose the labeling measure, misleading voters by spinning the law’s logical labeling exemptions into “arbitrary” loopholes that allegedly would result in an “illogical” and “ill-conceived” law.

As a result, California voters rejected the proposition with roughly 53 percent of the vote.

And in these big dollar proposition campaigns, it is not uncommon for voters to be subject to a great deal of misinformation.

So what hope does this leave for Pennsylvania?

Well, I think if we are to achieve any sort of progress, our first concern is the self-interested politicians that are resistant to reform.

Bri Bosak can be reached at or on Twitter @BriBosak.


  1. Thanks for writing about this. PA citizens really need to take the power back. Marijuana would be a non-issue now if we have referendum power.

  2. “And in these big dollar proposition campaigns, it is not uncommon for voters to be subject to a great deal of misinformation.”

    The answer could be to lower the number of signatures to qualify for referendum and use blockchain secured online voting. It would result in so many rapid and running propositions that Big Money couldn’t corrupt them all. It would also greatly increase the vote and the people’s interest in political issues of concern.

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