Peter Hurford: U.S. Ballot Initiatives as a Pathway for EA Policy

by EA Global Transcripts 7d15th Jan 20208 min read1 comment

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Ballot initiatives have allowed many groups in the United States to achieve policy outcomes outside the traditional legislative process. In this talk, Peter Hurford, a co-founder and researcher at Rethink Priorities, describes how the EA movement can generate change through the initiative process by matching effective policies to promising states and cities.

A transcript of Peter’s talk, which we have edited lightly for clarity, is below. You can also watch the talk on YouTube or read it on effectivealtruism.org.

The Talk

Rethink Priorities is a research organization dedicated to finding awesome causes for EAs to support. One of those causes is the ballot-initiative process, and I'm excited to talk to you about that today

But before we get into ballot initiatives, I’d like to ask: How do we pass policy here in the United States?


PH1 You might be familiar with the Senate and the House of Representatives. They have a reputation for getting nothing done. You may have a piece of legislation that you're excited about, but it gets stuck for years. It doesn't even come up for a vote, let alone pass out of the House and Senate.

You might have to find a lobbyist to help promote your legislation. And where are the lobbyists? I don't know. I haven't seen any and they might be expensive. [Engaging one] is an opaque, difficult process that is prone to failure.

But with ballot initiatives, you put policies directly on the ballot for people to vote on, rather than voting for a particular senator or representative to pass them for you. If enough people vote “yes,” a policy becomes law without involving any senators or representatives.

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It is a way to bring policy directly to the people, and it doesn't get bogged down in committee. This makes it easier to pass a desired policy, and the process is more accessible for members of the EA community.

First, I'm going to address why I think it's easier to pass the desired policy by looking at what happened in 2014.

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I am not implying that EAs are aligned with the Democratic Party, but in considering the difference between the federal level and the ballot-initiative level, it's still useful to analyze the Democrats. In 2014, the Democrats had a bad year on the national level. They lost nine different Senate seats and 13 House seats. At the same time, ballot initiatives passed legislation that Democrats favor. Four states voted to legalize marijuana directly on the ballot, and two states expanded criminal rights and reduced sentences for criminals.

Ben Casselman, a political analyst, summed this up by saying he was surprised that voters want a higher minimum wage, access to marijuana, and more access to abortions, but are, in many cases, voting for Republicans.

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This is the paradox of ballot initiatives. We can see it in 2018 as well.

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Democrats lost more Senate seats, but gained a lot of House seats. And more states legalized marijuana on the ballot and expanded criminal rights. We even passed landmark legislation here in California to produce more cage-free [animal welfare] reforms.

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This paradox of ballot initiatives is evident elsewhere. In Washington state, in May [2019], the state legislature passed a sweeping cage-free egg law. But it happened because voters threatened that if legislators didn’t pass that legislation, they would create a ballot initiative and pass it anyway. At the same time, on the federal level, Congressman Steve King — who thinks cage-free reforms are a violation of free trade — is working to outlaw all cage-free reforms and create one standard nationwide that doesn't truly account for animal welfare. There are states and ballot initiatives providing a lot of successes, but at the federal level, we are not even holding steady; we are going backwards.

Generally, ballot initiatives have worked well for animal welfare reform.


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Many states have passed ballot initiatives to expand animal welfare rights, such as California, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, and even Ohio. This ballot-initiative process has delivered a lot of victories in animal welfare, and it can deliver a lot of victories in other policy areas as well.

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For example, we can see that it has been used to pass 22 different minimum-wage increases and support same-sex marriage. [Note: There is no “official” EA position on political issues; these examples represent the speaker’s views only.]

At the same time, [conservative groups are also] using the process. A lot of pro-death penalty legislation has been passed at the ballot-initiative level. And there have been anti-animal welfare initiatives at the ballot-initiative level. Additionally, legislation is not always successful. Marijuana decriminalization, which we think of as taking off right now, has a batting average that is barely above .500. That is why we need to get out there and pass as many initiatives as we can and be strategic about where we pass them. But we don't necessarily need to experience success in every single area.

That is the general case for why I think it's easier to pass our desired policies using ballot initiatives, as opposed to figuring out how to get legislation through at the federal level. But I also want to talk about how accessible this process is. For the EA movement, which is still a fairly young movement with limited connections, ballot initiatives are doable.

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There are 27 states in the U.S. that can pass ballot initiatives. The process is mainly popular in the West. Every state has its own set of laws. No state has the same process, but these processes can be easily understood and mastered. Also, there are not just states, but municipalities to consider.

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In cities like Seattle, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Boston, you can pass ballot initiatives at the city level as well. That might be even more accessible for us.

Here is an example of how to approach the ballot-initiative process. Again, because every state is different, I have picked a specific example using the state of California:

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* You start out by completing a preliminary filing.
* You create a petition that you want to put on the ballot.
* The state government reviews your petition. They are not allowed to remove it because they dislike you or think your idea is unpopular. But they are allowed to determine whether it is unconstitutional. You must make sure your ballot accords with the state constitution.
* There is a 30-day public review period, during which time people are allowed to comment publicly on your initiative.
* You prepare the petition that you will actually take to the streets, to the public, because you need to collect over 600,000 signatures. And if you want to get this on the ballot in 2020, you had better hurry, because the signatures are due by April.
* Once you have those signatures, and they are determined to be legitimate (e.g., not just hundreds of names written by a single person), your measure goes on the ballot. If you voted here in California, you've probably seen such measures. There might even be so many that you are overwhelmed by the number of them on your ballot.
* On election day, people vote yes or no for your measure. You have to meet a specific threshold, which is usually, but not always, 50%.
* If it passes, your ballot measure becomes law. That's basically it. You've passed a law. Congratulations.

While I did say this process was accessible, that is a relative term; it's not necessarily accessible for all of us. You do need some resources.

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You need to be able to hire consultants and lawyers. You need to be able to hire a robust signature-collection team to get hundreds of thousands of signatures. And depending on where you're trying to pass the initiative, what kind of initiative it is, and how popular it is, you usually need somewhere between $400,000 and $12 million. That money is for collecting signatures and for TV advertising to help convince people to pass the initiative.

The process usually takes one to three years. Sometimes you can speed things up — especially if you have a lot of money — and other times it is more difficult. It varies from state to state. I would recommend that if you want to do something for 2020, you hurry up. But we also have 2022 and 2024 to look forward to, so maybe you can take a more relaxed approach to your initiative pacing.

This isn't something that we're doing in the EA movement, [but some EA organizations have provided the funding for others to do it].

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The Open Philanthropy Project, which is a major EA foundation, has given $1.5 million to advance criminal justice reforms in Florida and $4 million for cage-free egg initiatives here in California. Both of those initiatives passed.

Rethink Priorities is trying to become more involved in ballot initiatives. Right now, we're focusing on animal welfare reforms, such as the sweeping cage-free legislation that we've already seen be very successful. We're trying to determine how we can take that further and which policies we might want to pass next to keep the momentum going in animal welfare.

We're doing a lot of analysis of ballot-initiative strategy. We've started working with Civis Analytics to run polls and develop predictive models to identify policies that we think can pass in particular states and cities. We're going to be producing much more detailed analysis than what is in today’s talk, and we will put it up on the Effective Altruism Forum for everyone to see.

Marcus, Neil, and David from Rethink Priorities are also on our policy team. You can see more of our work at rethinkpriorities.org. You can sign up for our newsletter. You can email me. I am interested in talking with people who want to participate in the ballot initiative process, fund other ballot initiative processes, or who are excited to pass important legislation and get things moving. Thank you.

Moderator: What can be done when state leadership ignores the outcome of ballot initiatives, such as the Florida expansion of voting rights to former felons?

Peter: They can't literally ignore the initiative because it becomes law once it has been passed. To veto a ballot initiative, they would need to pass their own legislation, so it does need to receive majority support. But it is important to acknowledge that ballot initiatives aren't permanent. Like any other law, they can be repealed. You can get into something like a ping-pong match, where you keep passing an initiative that is subsequently repealed. But that actually doesn't happen too frequently. When we looked into that, we found that fewer than 5% of initiatives are repealed by the state. Most initiatives are here to stay.

Moderator: That's good to hear. Another question: Do you have concerns about a legislature weakening a ballot initiative after it passes? I'm thinking about the voting rights amendment in Florida. Do you have data or a hunch for how often this happens?

Peter: As I said, it doesn't happen too often — usually 5% of the time or less. Legislators usually don't really want to overrule the popular will of the people that explicitly. In Florida, there is a 60% threshold to pass initiatives. So anything that passes in Florida has to be fairly popular. Legislators don’t want to open themselves up to public backlash. But it is important to acknowledge that initiatives are not permanent.

Moderator: What are some of the most exciting ballot initiative ideas you've put thought into?

Peter: I'm still really excited about the momentum we've been seeing in cage-free egg laws, especially those banning the sale of caged eggs from other states. There used to be a pretty large loophole such that it would be illegal to grow chickens in cages, but other states could simply import as many caged eggs as they wanted. But now, California has outlawed even the sale of caged eggs, so that adds impact. I'm excited to see that happening in other states, like Washington in May, where they passed more cage-free egg reform.

Moderator: What do you think the lowest-hanging fruit is for animal initiatives, and in which states do you think it is worthwhile to lobby for them?

Peter: California and Massachusetts have been the two states where it has been easiest to pass this kind of legislation. They were also some of the first states to pass legislation for cage-free eggs. Arizona also tends to be a very good state. Nevada, Oregon, and Washington also tend to be surprisingly receptive to animal welfare reform and have an initiative process.

Generally, you want to find a sweet spot where there's enough of an animal industry that your initiative matters, but not so much that there are too many people who will oppose animal welfare initiatives.

Moderator: Is there a risk that popularizing ballot initiatives encourages their use among people with really bad ideas?

Peter: Yes, there is. We live in a democracy, and one of the downsides of a democracy is that people with bad ideas are just as eligible to participate as you are. It’s not an authoritarian regime. We need to go out there and win hearts and minds for our causes. So there's definitely room for interpersonal advocacy as well.

Moderator: It's clear that some positive policies can be passed through ballot initiatives. But as you mentioned, there are also negative policies that could be passed, like anti-animal welfare laws. Do you think that more positive than negative policies can be passed through these initiatives?

Peter: I do, although it depends on what you think of as a positive initiative. I don't want to necessarily speak on behalf of the entire EA movement by labeling particular policies as positive or negative. But in animal welfare reform so far — at least since 2000 — there has been a lot more pro-animal welfare legislation than anti-animal welfare legislation. And we’ve been seeing more victories with agriculture initiatives. Of course, that could change in the future if agriculture advocates become more organized or better funded. But for now, we seem to be in a good position.

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