The United States of America has caught up with Michigan in deciding it’s not a good idea to put proposals on the statewide ballot for a “vote of the people” in odd-numbered years, like this one.
This year, there have been only 27 different measures certified for ballots in nine different states (Michigan not among them) — that’s the lowest number of statewide ballot measures to be certified for the ballot in seven decades.
Way back in 1947 — two years after the end of World War II — there were 23 measures on statewide ballots in various states. This year, one measure was decided in Maine on June 13; West Virginia will decide on another October 7; and Louisiana voters will decide three measures on October 14. The remaining 22 measures will be ballots for the Nov. 7 election in a handful of states, but not Michigan.
Why has Michigan learned putting proposals on the ballot in odd-numbered years is a losing proposition? Because they’re likely to get blitzed by the voters, as was the case with the pathetic Proposal 2015-1 two years ago, on May 5, 2015. Remember, that was when a Michigan Legislature chock-full of term-limited members decided to put a proposal on the statewide ballot to raise some $2.5 billion annually in new taxes and fees to begin to try to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure, principally highways, roads and bridges. It got hammered, 80% No/20% Yes — the worst defeat for a Michigan ballot proposal of any kind, in any year, since 1948.
Only three other proposals of any kind have appeared on an odd-year statewide ballot in Michigan since the current Constitution went into effect Jan. 1, 1964. They all got clobbered by the electorate. Two were placed on the ballot by the Legislature in the same election (brilliant!) in the fall of 1989, both seeking to hike the state sales taxes by different amounts to provide new funding for K-12 public education. They were both annihilated. Even when the Legislature thought it was bowing to public sentiment and came up with a proposal in the spring of 1981 to earmark all revenue from the state Lottery for the school aid fund, the voters smelled a rat and handily rejected it.
So, it’s 0-for-4 for odd-year proposals in Michigan. Otherwise, it hasn’t been quite so bad. In even-numbered years — whether presidential or gubernatorial — there have been 111 proposals since 1964 to amend the Constitution or force a referendum or legislative initiative in a vote of the people, and 61 have been approved (nearly 55%). However, the success rate for initiatives and referenda is much higher than for constitutional amendments, which have only a 43.2% success ratio.
Only 32 of 74 Constitutional amendments have been approved by the voters, as opposed to 11 of 13 referenda and six of seven legislative initiatives. It should be noted, however, that if a petition drive forces a referendum on a legislative act, it’s almost certain to reject (nine out of 10 times) what the Legislature has done. Also, there have been three automatic statewide votes mandated by the Constitution on whether to convene another Constitutional Convention (in 1978, 1994, and 2010). All three were decisively defeated.
Nationwide, this year’s 27 measures in other states consist of four citizen-initiated measures, 19 legislatively-referred questions, one measure automatically referred to the ballot by a state constitution, and three advisory questions triggered by tax-increasing legislation in Washington. No additional measures are pending certification.
Walt de Vries, Ph.D. says
Fascinating piece. As a 1961-62 Con-Con Delegate, I fought for and won the automatic statewide votes on whether to convene another Constitutional Convention every 16 years. I strongly believe that every generation should have the chance to shape their basic governing document and to vote on it. Some of my former Con-Con colleagues used to call me–when the call was voted down again–to say we did not need these automatic votes because the voters would always reject the call for a new convention.. They would then add: “the voters know that the constitution we crafted in 1961-62 was so splendid, inspired, and eternal that it never needed to be re-written.”