This Year Voters Made an End Run Around Out of Touch Politicians

Photo by DJ Johnson

This fall, in the lead-up to the midterm elections, a group of Catholic nuns, Protestant ministers, and other faith leaders caravanned around South Dakota on what they called a “Love Your Neighbor Tour.”

They stopped in grocery stores, diners, senior centers, libraries, and other community gathering spots to engage people in conversation about health insurance. They heard story after story of family members, friends, and neighbors who are having a hard time affording quality health care.

The goal of this tour: to build support for a ballot initiative to help more South Dakotans get the care they need.

Through such initiatives, citizens can make end runs around elected officials who’ve become disconnected from their constituents.

In this year’s election, voters in more than 30 states engaged in this form of direct democracy. These voters enshrined abortion rights in states like Michigan, funded universal pre-K and child care in New Mexico, and cracked down on medical debt in Arizona.

In South Dakota, the “Love Your Neighbor” campaign won big. By a margin of 56 to 44, voters approved a proposal to force their state government to expand Medicaid eligibility, a move that will help an estimated 42,500 working class people get care.

These people earn too much to qualify for the state’s existing Medicaid program but too little to access private insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Since 2010, the federal government has covered 90 percent of the costs when states expand Medicaid, but political leaders in South Dakota and 11 other states have refused to do so.

This is not the first time South Dakotans have used effective people-to-people organizing and ballot initiative strategies for the good of their neighbors.

Back in 2016, a bipartisan coalition with strong faith community support pulled off an incredible victory against financial predators, winning 76 percent support for a ballot measure to impose a 36 percent interest rate cap on payday loans. Previously, those rates had averaged around 600 percent in South Dakota, trapping many low-income families in downward spirals of debt.

In this midterm election season, Nebraska offers another inspiring example of citizen action to bypass out-of-touch politicians.

For 13 years now, Republicans in Congress have blocked efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, letting it stay stuck at $7.25 since 2009. Nebraska’s entire Congressional delegation — all Republicans — have consistently opposed minimum wage hikes. Rep. Adrian Smith, for instance, recently attacked President Biden’s $15 federal minimum proposal as “economically harmful.”

Nebraskans view the matter differently.

Voters there approved a state minimum wage hike to the same level Biden has proposed — $15 an hour — by 2026. The measure, which sailed through with 58 percent support, will mean bigger paychecks for about 150,000 Nebraskans.

Ballot measures like these can send a healthy wake-up call to political leaders who aren’t listening to their constituents. But certain special interests, especially ones with deep pockets and driven by narrow profit motives, don’t necessarily want ordinary Americans to be heard.

State legislatures around the country have seen a flurry of bills aimed at restricting or eliminating the ballot measure process. According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, the number of such bills rose 500 percent between 2017 and 2021. Dozens more were introduced in 2022, including efforts to raise the threshold to pass a ballot measure beyond a simple majority vote.

The goal of these restrictions? To undermine the will of the people.

At a time when more and more Americans are worried about the future of our democracy, we should be applauding the advocates in South Dakota, Nebraska, and elsewhere who are engaging their fellow citizens in political decisions that affect their lives.

We need more democracy. Not less.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.