There’s Nothing Wrong with Voting Without Your Political Partner. In Fact, it is Healthy.
By Adam Sanders.
As voters, we typically think of politics and elections as something unique and exclusive that we engage in with our political partners during campaign seasons. We do not always have a political partner, or even know who our type is. We still end up getting distracted by fixations on education, healthcare, or racial justice, just to name a few things we all think are hot topic issues. Some of us also have tastes that are a little niche that do not get national attention. Political kinks can include things like hunting rights on certain land in North Carolina, whether churches should pay state taxes in Minnesota, or should sports betting be legal in Oklahoma (made up examples, just to be clear). This is where referenda come in.
Referenda are brilliant mechanisms of direct democracy. In the context of the U.S. political system, referenda are effective ways of enacted popular, often bi-partisan, policies on the local or state level. This method of bottom-up legislation can work miracles against gridlock, especially in the absence of federal concern or capacity. For the prudes, vanillas, or politically partnered among us who may be unfamiliar with them, referenda are special types of ballot provisions that ask voters if a particular bill should become law. In the U.S., typically these are included on Election Day ballots along with the actual candidates. Assuming a referendum, or “ballot measure” as they are often called are approved, they are then taken up and passed into law by the appropriate local or state legislature.
In the U.S., referenda date back to the 1890s, and were crafted as ways to break the hold of the Gilded Age’s Robber Barons on state houses. American referenda are thoroughly a state-level phenomenon. In fact, neither the U.S. Constitution, nor any federal statutes, make any provisions for referenda (although there are numerous advocacy groups working to change this). Therefore, the system of state referenda in the U.S. is extremely decentralized. However, such decentralization does lead to policy changes that act like a scalpel to solve problems in a specific state.
Take, for example, a ballot initiative that was passed in Massachusetts in 2020. By a vote of 86%, the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a referendum known as the “Massachusetts Right to Repair Initiative (2020).” To provide a bit of background, “right to repair” laws involve solving disparities between large auto dealers and small repair shops. Prior to the advent of “right to repair laws”, large auto manufacturers would often withhold important information regarding their vehicles from mom-and-pop mechanics to give their own dealerships an edge in offering repair services to motorists who purchased their vehicles at said dealerships. A Ford dealership would withhold certain information from Danny’s body shop down the street so that Ford owners would get better service from the Ford dealership irrespective of the baseline skills of each vendor’s mechanics. Critically, this gave the large auto makers an unfair advantage that was used to undercut any attempts by smaller shops to compete by offering lower prices or potentially superior service. The 2020 Massachusetts referendum was designed to require larger car companies to share all the information of their makes and models with smaller auto mechanics, just as they would with their own dealership shops.
Of course, this automotive issue is a very niche policy on its surface. But the 2020 Massachusetts ballot measure serves as an example of a mundane issue that effects average people in their everyday lives being solved (assuming the legislature acts) by everyday people themselves without need for politicians. We all have needs that have to be met, and referenda are always there to comfort us even in the bleakest of dry spells between elections. Of course, there are also federal-level issues, but due to political gridlock in D.C., states use referenda to solve problems in a much timelier manner than what would normally be possible. Again in 2020, Oklahoma held a referendum on Medicaid expansion that passed by a razor-thin majority. What makes this ballot measure particularly striking is that it passed despite being vehemently opposed by almost the entirety of Oklahoma’s state government. This demonstrates that referenda can also be a useful tool of a voter asserting what their wants and needs are even if their political partners try to gaslight them into thinking they cannot think for themselves.
To be sure, referenda are not without their critics. In recent times, common criticisms have included claims that they clash with legislatures, which are already designed to represent the people in the states who elected their representatives to Congress. In addition, it has been suggested that the very special interests which referenda are designed to restrain have merely learned how to hijack referenda to further their own policy agendas. However, one must be careful with these arguments since critics of referenda are elected politicians, who do not want to be embarrassed by being visibly incongruent with their own constituents on policy issues. Furthermore, corporate or political participation in referenda risks being used as a political smokescreen for legislatures, which often suffer from much the same issues themselves.
In conclusion, Americans often forget about or neglect the importance of referenda. This is somewhat understandable since referenda only occur on the state level, and they deal with really nice issues. Referenda do not occur on a regular schedule. Furthermore, they do not participate in debates, have a Twitter account, or have a face and a (human) name. But they are ideal for voters who have real needs, even niche political itches that need scratched, and cannot wait for Mr. Right (or Left) to knock their socks off. Voters must never forget referenda. They can happen at any moment and have direct impact on one’s day-to-day life. The issues might be the quality and price of automotive repairs or access to health insurance when they cannot afford private insurance or are unemployed. Voters cannot afford to forget to think for themselves even without the right candidate around.
 William Francis Galvin, “Massachusetts Election Statistics”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, accessed 2/22/21, https://electionstats.state.ma.us/ballot_questions/view/7343/
 Galvin, “Massachusetts Election Statistics”, https://electionstats.state.ma.us/ballot_questions/view/7343/
 Oklahoma State Election Board, “State Question №802 Initiative Petition №419”, State of Oklahoma, accessed 2/22/21, https://results.okelections.us/OKER/?elecDate=20200630
 Trevor Brown, “As Medicaid Expansion Heats Up, Funding Battle Lurks in the Background”, Oklahoma Watch, January 19th, 2020. https://oklahomawatch.org/2020/01/29/how-would-state-pay-for-medicaid-expansion-no-one-knows-yet/