Unpacking North Carolina’s Ballot Initiative Shortfall

North Carolina is one of 24 states to reject citizen-initiated ballot measures, lessening voters’ options.

Photo by Drew Perales on Unsplash

Hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness.  The options for North Carolina voters to inform legislators about what they want to address are dwindling.  Even in the “Get out and vote!” era we are in today, there seems to be little recourse for North Carolinians trying to make an impact in state politics.

A direct line to lawmaking, having your voice heard, and facilitating the implementation of legislation that benefits millions across your state exemplify the pinnacle of democracy. Indeed, these actions are what every individual privy to politics deserves.

The way to potentially obtain these objectives?  Ballot initiatives.  Ballot initiatives are also referred to as citizen initiatives or ballot propositions.  In an interview with adjunct Professor Rick Glazier of Campbell Law School, who formerly served as a Democratic member in the North Carolina House of Representatives for 12 years, he defined ballot initiatives as “a process that states create that allows citizens through some metric to achieve the ability to put an issue on the ballot, either in a primary setting or a general election setting, for the voters to decide.”

These kinds of voting measures are opportunities for citizens of a state to propose a change in legislation or a state constitutional amendment.  Ballot initiatives are commonly viewed as a pure form of democracy and may be utilized by those who feel underrepresented by their state or local politicians.

Gerrymandering in NC

Oftentimes, the problematic phenomenon of gerrymandering attributes to feelings of underrepresentation amongst constituents.  Gerrymandering is the process of manipulating district maps by redrawing district lines to obtain an objective.  Partisan gerrymandering is when one political side is favored at the disadvantage of the other.  Shockingly, only a few states have made it illegal.  North Carolina is not among these few and has been a hot spot, especially so, for partisan gerrymandering.

When underrepresented constituents feel strongly about a controversial topic and advocate for their stance on the topic, they inevitably face a large uphill battle due to prior manipulation of district lines to support the opposing party.

To better put this into perspective, in 2022 a North Carolina court-drawn map was implemented which balanced out the number of Republicans to Democrats in the midterms.  However, due to recent court rulings, the maps could be redrawn in a way to elect eleven Republicans to just three Democrats in North Carolina’s fourteen congressional districts.  If imposed, the new maps would be in effect for every election until a new census is taken in 2030.  To further explore the effects of this change, Jeff Jackson, a Democratic congressman representing NC-14, announced in 2023 that he was running for attorney general, “[a] group of politicians in North Carolina just redrew my congressional district to take me out. I’m running for attorney general, and I’m going to use that job to go after political corruption.” Wiley Nickel, another Democratic representative, announced in December 2023 that “he won’t seek reelection to Congress next year, the result of congressional redistricting by Republican state legislators this fall that’s likely to shift North Carolina’s delegation to the right.”

This result could lead to Democratic politicians, and people who vote for Democrats, being underrepresented in Congress for years to come.  “There are times when majorities – particularly supermajorities, are not fully responsive to the public opinion of the state as a whole…and there needs to be an ability for the public to get through that when they cannot change the composition of the state easily because of gerrymandering,” explained Rick Glazier, Adjunct Professor at Campbell Law School.

Ballot Initiatives Across the Country

Ballot initiatives offer underrepresented voters a path of advocacy in 26 states.  While North Carolina cities and towns may implement initiatives and referendums, North Carolina does not at the state level.

In contrast, Ohio just utilized a ballot initiative measure in the summer of 2023.  Ohioans were faced with “Issue 1” which proposed a 60% supermajority requirement for passing new state constitutional amendments instead of the 51% simple majority that was in place previously.  The new proposal was rejected, meaning that the majority of Ohio citizens preferred keeping the simple majority when it comes to approving new constitutional amendments.  Issue 1 was proposed and backed by the state GOP.  It is presumed that increasing the simple majority to a supermajority would have made it more difficult to protect abortion rights.  The Issue 1 vote suggests that more Ohioans want to maintain a more direct line to democracy in the case of abortion rights.

One of the more well-known examples of ballot initiatives is California Proposition 209: the Affirmative Action ballot initiative. This took place in 1996 when Californians were faced with the proposition that read “Prohibition Against Discrimination or Preferential Treatment by State and Other Public Entities.”  At first glance, this seems like an obvious choice; in fact, you feel as though you do not need to read past the first three words for you to know how you are going to vote.  This is how most Californians viewed the proposition.  So, it was not surprising when over 54% of the population voted to enact Proposition 209.  It was deceiving as it came across as a way to put an end to discrimination in the State.  In reality, it eliminated affirmative action making it harder for women and minority groups to achieve educational, hiring, and contractual goals.

Ballot initiatives are a complex thing.  As exemplified by Ohio’s Issue 1 Proposition, they can be useful to citizens of a state who want a chance at a more direct democracy.  But, unfortunately, they can also be manipulated into something misleading, as exemplified by California Proposition 209.

The Future for NC Ballots

While ballot initiatives may seem like an obvious answer to underrepresentation, they are not an easy thing to achieve.  They can be very resource-intensive, as they require money, time, and effort.  The more controversial and widespread the issue is, the more expensive it is.  The complexities of researching and implementing ballot initiatives could be a reason why North Carolina does not employ it as a citizen-initiated measure.

Regardless, Article I § 10 of the North Carolina Constitution provides that all elections be free, and § 35 states that a “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.”  One of those fundamental principles – the people are sovereign.  Ballot initiatives are the quintessential way to uphold this principle, yet North Carolina does not recognize them, nor is there any movement toward implementing them.