Voters won on abortion and weed in 2022. Now state lawmakers are pushing back Right-leaning states moved to make ballot measures tougher to pass after success of voter initiatives on abortion rights, marijuana and Medicaid expansion. That's led to pushback from state lawmakers.

Ballot measures on weed and abortion won in 2022. Now they're fueling a backlash

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A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In 2022, voters expanded Medicaid in South Dakota. In Missouri, they legalized recreational marijuana. And Michigan voters enshrined the right to an abortion. All these major changes started with a citizen-backed petition. NPR's Laura Benshoff is here to tell us why lawmakers in some states are trying to make it harder to approve such measures in the future. So, Laura, let's start with citizen-led initiatives 101.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: OK, here's the deal. Normally, lawmakers get to pass laws, and they get to introduce constitutional amendments. But in about half the states, there's some form of direct democracy. And in 18, there are laws on the books saying citizens can actually initiate a change to the state's constitution, no politicians needed. Just get enough signatures, and it goes on the ballot. And there's nothing inherently partisan about that, but we've seen a real effort since the mid-2010s to bring progressive ballot measures in GOP-led states. These are on issues which tend to be popular with a majority of voters but are out of step with the Republican platform - for example, raising the minimum wage or expanding Medicaid. There have been more than 30 progressive ballot measures approved by voters since 2016, some in very conservative states.

MARTÍNEZ: I would imagine that conservative lawmakers do not love when that happens.

BENSHOFF: You are right about that. Let's go to Ohio, where reporter Andy Chow of the Statehouse News Bureau will give us an example of how Republican state leadership is responding to the threat of ballot initiatives there right now.

ANDY CHOW, BYLINE: Just weeks after the last election, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose launched a preemptive strike against future ballot measures to amend the Ohio constitution. LaRose and a state Republican representative rolled out a resolution that would require all amendments to receive a 60% supermajority at the polls, rather than the current simple majority vote.

FRANK LAROSE: This is about trying to make the Ohio Constitution less susceptible to special interests, and if something has 60% of support, then it will pass.

CHOW: This comes as advocates for abortion rights, legal marijuana use and redistricting reform are all gearing up to put their issue on the ballot in 2023 or 2024. These are measures that have failed to gain traction in the Republican-dominated legislature. But polls show they're really popular with voters. Katy Shanahan is with the Equal Districts Coalition, which fights against gerrymandering and for direct democracy issues. She says the push to raise the threshold for a constitutional amendment is a way of subverting the will of the people.

KATY SHANAHAN: What's clear here is that this is an effort to block the people of Ohio's ability to amend our Constitution and to ensure that we can enshrine rights and protections for the people that obviously Ohio Republicans don't want us to have.

CHOW: Most ballot measures in Ohio in the past 15 years have been championed by moneyed interest groups. Most have failed. Advocates for abortion rights and redistricting reform are optimistic voters will approve their issues because they have lots of local support. Republican state lawmakers were not able to pass the resolution to raise the amendment threshold to 60% of the vote during this month's lame-duck session. But they say they'll try again first thing next year. For NPR News, I'm Andy Chow in Columbus.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So Ohio is moving very quickly to raise the bar for changing its constitution. Laura, what does it look like in other parts of the country?

BENSHOFF: In 2022, there were more than 50 bills that would have made the process harder or more difficult in some way, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. They were introduced in states like Missouri, Utah and Oklahoma. And some of these measures, like the one we just heard about in Ohio, are pretty straightforward. They just try to raise the vote count needed to amend the Constitution. But Kelly Hall with the Fairness Project says there's another kind of bill, which is more like death by a thousand cuts. For example...

KELLY HALL: Requiring them to collect more signatures from different parts of the state, requiring the language to be printed all on one sheet of paper, meaning you have to carry around a bath-towel-sized petition. They don't preclude people from participating by themselves, but they add up.

BENSHOFF: Now, most of these bills fail, but a few have succeeded in the past years and have actually ended up on the ballot for voters to decide. This past election in Arkansas, voters rejected restrictions. But in Arizona, voters there actually agreed to make it harder to pass citizen-led initiatives.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what can we expect in 2023?

BENSHOFF: This push and pull is likely to continue. And there's another big issue fueling it. That's abortion rights. Progressive ballot initiative groups are looking to put that question to voters in about 10 states where it's currently banned or heavily restricted. And these are many of the same states that have already tried to restrict the citizen initiative process. So we can expect more ballot questions, more attempts to hold them back and more lawsuits.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Laura Benshoff. Laura, thanks.

BENSHOFF: Thank you so much, A.

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