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Georgia Democrats propose public ballot initiatives for popular policies

Georgia is one of the few states that does not allow voters to directly propose and enact laws or constitutional amendments through ballot initiatives. A group of Democratic lawmakers wants to change that and give more power to the people.

What are ballot initiatives and why do they matter?

Ballot initiatives are a form of direct democracy that allows citizens to bypass the legislature and put their own proposals on the ballot for voters to decide. They can be used to create or repeal laws, amend the constitution, or approve bonds or taxes.

Ballot initiatives can be a powerful tool for advancing popular policies that may be blocked or ignored by the elected officials. They can also increase voter turnout and civic engagement, as well as hold politicians accountable to the public will.

How do ballot initiatives work in other states?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 states and the District of Columbia have some form of ballot initiative process. The requirements and procedures vary widely among them, but generally involve the following steps:

  • Drafting: The proponents of an initiative must draft a clear and concise text that meets the legal and constitutional standards of the state.
  • Filing: The proponents must file the initiative with the appropriate state agency, such as the secretary of state or the attorney general, and pay a fee if required.
  • Review: The state agency reviews the initiative for compliance and may issue a title, summary, and fiscal impact statement.
  • Petitioning: The proponents must collect a certain number of valid signatures from registered voters within a specified time period. The number and deadline depend on the type and scope of the initiative, as well as the turnout of the previous election.
  • Verification: The state agency verifies the signatures and determines if the initiative qualifies for the ballot. If not, the proponents may have a chance to cure the deficiencies or appeal the decision.
  • Voting: The qualified initiative is placed on the ballot for the next general or special election. The voters can approve or reject the initiative by a simple majority or a supermajority, depending on the state and the subject matter.
  • Implementation: The approved initiative becomes law or part of the constitution, unless it is challenged in court or amended or repealed by the legislature, subject to certain limitations.

Georgia Democrats propose public ballot initiatives for popular policies

What is the proposal for Georgia?

The proposal for Georgia is House Resolution 70, sponsored by Rep. Shea Roberts and co-sponsored by 17 other Democrats. It seeks to amend the state constitution to allow voters to initiate laws and constitutional amendments through ballot initiatives.

The proposal would require the following:

  • For statutory initiatives: The proponents would need to collect signatures from at least 8% of the voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election, distributed across at least 35% of the state’s counties. The initiative would need to be approved by at least 60% of the voters in a general election to become law.
  • For constitutional initiatives: The proponents would need to collect signatures from at least 10% of the voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election, distributed across at least 50% of the state’s counties. The initiative would need to be approved by at least two-thirds of the voters in a general election to become part of the constitution.

The proposal would also set some restrictions and safeguards, such as:

  • Subject matter: The initiatives could not violate the U.S. Constitution or federal law, or deal with matters reserved to the legislature, such as appropriations, taxation, or redistricting.
  • Single subject: The initiatives could only address one subject and one code section at a time, to avoid confusion and logrolling.
  • Legislative review: The legislature could review the proposed initiatives and offer alternative measures or amendments, which would also appear on the ballot for the voters to choose.
  • Legal challenge: The initiatives could be challenged in court before or after the election, on grounds of constitutionality, legality, or clarity.
  • Legislative amendment or repeal: The legislature could amend or repeal a statutory initiative after two years, with a two-thirds vote in each chamber. The legislature could not amend or repeal a constitutional initiative, unless authorized by another constitutional amendment.

Why do Georgia Democrats support ballot initiatives?

The Georgia Democrats who support ballot initiatives argue that they would give more voice and choice to the voters, especially on issues that are popular among the public but not among the Republican majority in the state legislature.

Some of the issues that the Democrats cite as examples are:

  • Abortion rights: A recent poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 44% of Georgians said abortion should be easier to obtain, 18% said it should be harder to obtain, and 29% said the current restrictions should remain. However, the state legislature passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation in 2019, banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, which is currently blocked by a federal judge.
  • Medicaid expansion: The same poll found that 69% of Georgians supported expanding Medicaid coverage to low-income adults, and only 22% opposed it. However, the state has not fully expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and instead sought a waiver from the federal government to implement a more limited and conditional plan, which is also facing legal challenges.
  • School vouchers: The poll also found that 60% of Georgians disapproved of using public funds to pay for private school tuition, and only 35% approved of it. However, Gov. Brian Kemp has signaled that he wants to expand school vouchers in 2024, despite the opposition from public school advocates and the potential impact on the state budget.

Rep. Roberts said that these and other polls show that the majority of Georgians want to have a say on these issues, but the Republicans in the legislature are not listening to them. She said that ballot initiatives would allow the voters to have a direct say on the laws that affect their lives.

What are the chances of the proposal passing?

The chances of the proposal passing are very slim, as it faces strong opposition from the Republican majority in the state legislature, as well as some legal and practical hurdles.

The proposal would need to pass both chambers of the legislature with a two-thirds vote, and then be approved by the voters in a statewide referendum. However, the Republicans hold a 103-76 majority in the House and a 34-22 majority in the Senate, and they are unlikely to support a measure that would undermine their legislative power and agenda.

Moreover, the proposal may face constitutional challenges, as the Georgia Constitution explicitly grants the legislative power to the General Assembly, and does not mention any role for the people in lawmaking. The proposal would also require a significant amount of resources and coordination to implement, such as creating a system for verifying signatures, reviewing initiatives, and placing them on the ballot.

Therefore, the proposal is more of a symbolic gesture than a realistic possibility, at least for now. It is intended to highlight the gap between the public opinion and the legislative action, and to pressure the Republicans to be more responsive and accountable to the voters.


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