Republicans have made remarkable gains in statehouses across America in the last eight years. Yet 20 state capitals still have divided government, with neither party controlling both the governorship and the legislature—a prescription for gridlock. In response, some states are offering controversial ballot initiatives that give voters a chance to enact laws that can’t get passed in the legislature. The initiative route is especially popular among Democrats, who enjoy political control of just six states (Republicans control 23). Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity called the ballot measures “the weapon of choice for liberal groups.”

In New Jersey, for instance, Democrats boast solid majorities in both houses of the legislature, but Republican governor Chris Christie has spent much of his time vetoing Democratic bills, including a steady stream of tax hikes and minimum-wage increases. So Democrats have pursued legislation through the initiative process, which the Garden State allows. Voters approved a $1 boost in the state’s minimum wage in 2013. Democratic state senate president Steve Sweeney—a likely gubernatorial candidate—has pushed a measure to raise the minimum hourly wage to $15 by 2021, along with various other proposals that would otherwise never get past Christie’s veto pen. Sweeney also wants to change how the state’s legislative districts get drawn, ostensibly to make them more “competitive,” though critics say that his proposal would ensure Democratic control of Trenton for decades. though some of these measures have failed to make it on the ballot this election cycle, they’re likely to reemerge next year, when Sweeney could be pursuing a gubernatorial bid. One columnist has called Sweeney “an ambitious politician who is using the constitution to pad his own résumé for the coming campaign for governor.”

Maine’s Republican governor Paul LePage faces a similar challenge from Democrats. He’s thwarted steep minimum-wage increases, but the state’s Democratic House speaker, Mark Eves, is pushing a ballot measure that would boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020. Democratic and labor groups supporting the measure include the Fairness Project, a national effort funded by the Service Employees International Union.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators have taken a page from the Democratic playbook in Virginia, a right-to-work state for nearly 70 years that is slowly turning blue. Before that political makeover can happen, the Republican-controlled legislature wants to enshrine right-to-work—which gives employees the choice to opt out of a union—in the state’s constitution, where it would be difficult to undo. To get the question on the ballot, Republicans had to pass a bill proposing the initiative in both the Virginia House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions. They succeeded, and right-to-work will appear on the Virginia ballot in November.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Missouri, where Republicans have tried for a decade to institute voter-identification requirements for elections. Earlier this year, the GOP-controlled legislature broke a Democratic filibuster and passed legislation putting the issue before voters this fall. If it succeeds, the ID law will be enshrined in the state’s constitution, where even the state’s Supreme Court can’t overturn it.

National political groups are getting more involved in these state battles. The left-leaning Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center, a union-funded, D.C.-based organization, is helping local groups push minimum-wage ballot initiatives this year. The group’s expanding efforts prompted the Republican Party to form the Center for Conservative Initiatives to help state GOP parties fight back. “The left has made it clear since their significant losses . . . that they will increasingly throw their efforts—and money—behind ballot initiatives, understanding that they no longer have control in state chambers to push through their liberal policies,” the conservative group said last year.

With a presidential election looming in November, state ballot initiatives might seem like a sideshow. But they are rising in importance, especially to the Left, thanks to Republican gains.

Gaston De Cardenas/Getty Images


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