Commentary

Ballot initiative amendment defeat expected but still disappointing

February 2, 2024 7:00 am

Should Indiana citizens be able to direct ballot initiatives like their neighbors in Ohio and MIchigan? (George Frey/Getty Images)

I knew the amendment would fail before Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, even began speaking. That’s how it works with Democrat amendments in a chamber where Republicans have a supermajority.

But I was interested in the debate on whether Indiana should consider allowing citizens to initiate a statewide ballot question, whether for a law or constitutional change. In Indiana, only legislators can do so.

Sen. Sue Errington, D-Muncie. (Photo from Indiana House Democrats)

Errington’s proposed amendment to a House elections bill would have placed a non-binding public question on the November ballot: “Shall citizens be allowed to initiate a ballot referendum in Indiana?”

The amendment was easily defeated 27-66, with every Republican who voted opposing the measure.

Think about that. It was non-binding. Advisory. Guidance only. And House Republicans don’t want to hear what you have to say.

Errington said more and more citizens have asked her why Indiana doesn’t have the same rights as citizens in other states like Ohio to initiate change that lawmakers won’t do on their own.

It mostly comes up in the context of legalizing marijuana and protecting access to abortion.

Errington quoted public, well-respected polling showing Hoosiers want both by significant margins.

“Is it any wonder that the people in this state are losing confidence in us to make laws that reflect their views?” she asked. “Is it any wonder that they are losing interest in voting when their legislators don’t listen to them after they have been elected? And when their legislators actually do the opposite?”

Ohio is one of 19 states that allow direct ballot initiatives, either for laws or constitutional amendments. Voters in Michigan and Illinois also have that option.

GOP disapproval

But Republicans spoke against the amendment.

Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said Indiana’s founders were smart enough to set up a representative government instead of putting every issue on the ballot and getting nothing done.

“(Voters) do weigh in. It’s called an election. And that is how we change things in this body, is through elections,” he said.

Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, said the statewide public question would be an unprecedented “waste of Hoosier’s time and attention.”

He also noted it should be hard to change the state constitution, and I have to agree. But you can create a direct ballot system that gives a path to citizen-led initiatives with a bar high enough to deter constant upheaval.

In Ohio, for instance, petitions for a constitutional change must be gathered from 44 of the state’s 88 counties. And the number of petitions is equal to 10% of votes cast for governor in previous election. That meant more than 413,000 signatures for a recent abortion initiative.

That is a ton of work to achieve and means it won’t be used on every little issue-of-the-day. For comparison, Indiana is considered to have a strong signature requirement to run for governor or Senate, in which a candidate must collect 500 signatures from all nine congressional districts. That’s only a total of 4,500.

Perhaps House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said it best: “I am not scared of what the voters have to say. You shouldn’t be either.”

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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.

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