In 2022, Kentucky should become the 27th state to allow citizen ballot initiatives, where passionate organizers fan out with clipboards, collecting signatures from a sizable portion of the population to see their proposed law appear on the next ballot for adoption or rejection by the electorate. This is how we get nice things, like paid family and medical leave, medical marijuana, and universal pre-k. It’s also how we get things that pay for nice things, like sports betting, casino gambling, and a higher tax rate on people at the tippy top.
I prefiled Bill Request 1169 to give Kentucky voters more of a say in the policies that affect the quality of their lives. While I have pet policies I’d love to see on the ballot, this isn’t my activist agenda; it’s responsive government. The bill, if passed, would ask Kentuckians: “Are you in favor of amending the Constitution of Kentucky to establish that citizens of this state can propose changes to the law through ballot initiatives?”
It’s not a novel idea. A century ago, voters used the process to extend the right to vote to women, and a half century ago they used it to remove racist literacy tests. 26 states currently allow citizens to participate in this form of direct democracy.
In recent years, voters in other states have used ballot measures to legalize marijuana, both for medical and adult recreational use, restore voting rights for people convicted of felony crimes, and raise the minimum wage.
Since 2002, there have been 21 citizen-initiated ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, many in red states such as Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Alaska. All 21 have passed.
If we allow citizens to propose laws, we’ll get policies that are popular, not partisan. Last year, the state’s top Republican polling firm found that 66% of Kentuckians want to allow sports betting. Nine in 10 Kentucky adults are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and six in 10 want to legalize it altogether, according to a 2020 poll.
These issues and others are dutifully filed in the General Assembly every year, many with significant bipartisan and public support, and yet the bills die at the end of each legislative session. The people want these policies; it’s Republican leaders in Frankfort-and their backers-who don’t.
Republicans in the legislature really aren’t so conservative when it comes to adding questions to the ballot. Every year, they propose amending the Kentucky constitution, which requires the approval of voters but can only be initiated by the General Assembly. They just don’t want to share that power with the people they represent, or lose their ability to hand pick the topics.
There will be two Republican-backed questions on the ballot in 2022, a measure that would allow the legislature to bypass the governor and call itself into special session, and one that says Kentucky’s constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to an abortion.
One of my Republican colleagues told me he was against ballot initiatives because “the people will just vote for a lot of expensive stuff for themselves.” I’m not sure what’s so wrong with that. Kentuckians deserve nice things.
Ballot initiatives would result in more people participating in the political process than ever. Political scientists have found that voter turnout is substantially higher in states that offer this form of participatory democracy. Let’s take this monumental step to welcome new voters, and welcome back voters who had given up on government thinking their voices didn’t matter.
BR 1169 will bring the people who are most affected by policy change into the work of changing policy, and build a stronger, more connected citizenry at a time when we badly need to repair social fissures and rebuild trust in government.
Importantly, my bill explicitly protects hard-won civil rights. It says that ballot initiatives in Kentucky “cannot target a particular class of individuals” — not pregnant people nor LGBTQ people nor minorities. The idea is to bring us closer to democracy, to include more voices and to expand rights, to give power to young people, people of color, low-income people, and other groups deprived of adequate representation in the legislature. It’s time to level the playing field. Let’s put it to a vote.
Rep. Josie Raymond has represented KY House District 31, including Hikes Point and Jeffersontown, since 2019.