In the face of uncertainty, direct democracy remains vital

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The coronavirus crisis has impacted people across the country and world — you don’t need me to tell you that. People are scared and confused. Anxiety about the safety and health of ourselves and our loved ones has risen, there are growing concerns about economic stability and job security, we are juggling childcare, homeschooling and wondering whether our children will finish the school year. This pandemic has further exposed the deep & systemic inequities not only in our healthcare system, but in our everyday lives.

In the face of this public health crisis, our democracy may well be at stake. Despite what may feel like a bleak horizon, I have hope for our democracy and our future — let me tell you why.

As we’ve seen in countless elections before, direct democracy can be an answer to the greatest needs of the people who need most greatly. In the face of this crisis, we must continue to fight for our voices to be heard. The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) is fighting alongside our partners in states all across the country to ensure that direct democracy remains a vital tool to give power to the people — because we know what’s at stake. Campaigns fighting for access to healthcare, a living wage, and voting rights face a landscape that shifts each and every day. On top of advocating for the progressive policies badly needed in their communities, these campaigns now must fight just to be allowed on voters’ ballots this November.

Because of widespread stay-at-home orders and social distancing efforts aimed at stopping the spread of this pandemic, in-person signature gathering efforts have been suspended. That means dozens of initiatives that were striving toward ballot eligibility are now at risk. With most signature deadlines still in place, and with stay-at-home orders extending into May or June for many states, these campaigns — and the communities that need them — are searching for alternatives. They need our support and protection more than ever. Why? Because our communities rely on direct democracy to have a say in the issues that affect their lives.

Through the dust kicked up by an incompetent president, an inactive Congress, and suspended state legislatures, BISC is stepping in to support dozens of organizations and campaigns to help them identify what options they have to qualify for the November ballot. While some have clearer paths to the ballot than others, these issues remain critical, and plenty of work remains to be done to engage with voters and affect change. As we are battling shifting dynamics on a daily basis and meeting the moment to address this crisis, three things are critical to whatever strategy we pursue:

1. The people and communities most impacted must remain at the center.

2. We must understand and consider the future ramifications of our actions and do no harm.

3. Collaboration between organizations, coalitions, and campaigns is key.

In states around the country, we are working with partners to understand what policy and legal options are available to adjust the initiative qualification process — whether in the courts or in our legislatures. In Arizona and Montana, legal challenges have been filed that would allow ballot measure campaigns to temporarily collect electronic signatures during the pandemic. In Ohio, advocates have filed legal challenges to change the signature threshold, temporarily collect e-signatures, and make alterations to the signature verification period or “cure” period. And in some states like Oklahoma, the Secretary of State paused and stopped the clock on the 90 day period to collect signatures and will start again after the state of emergency is lifted. BISC is also working with organizations to innovate and dust off some older strategies, from sending and returning petitions by mail to including petitions in newspapers. We’re also looking at hosting virtual house parties to engage volunteers and gather signatures.

There’s no one-size-fits all model. Ballot measure procedures vary state-by-state, but this is why organizations like BISC exist — to be a national anchor and to share best practices and resources across the country.

It’s communities that rest at the heart of our work. Communities of color are some of direct democracy’s strongest supporters, and not by chance. Ballot measures help us to transform this country into one that is equitable and just. Now, more than ever, these measures — and these communities — cannot be forgotten.

There is precedent of temporary rule changes for election processes during emergencies like natural disasters. As our country enters the second month of this national emergency — the second of what could turn out to be many, many more — special action must be taken to address these special circumstances.

We can, and must, protect ballot measures. These issues have proved to engage people and communities who have been pushed to the margins for far too long. Direct democracy has a long tradition of giving a voice to the voiceless, of breaking barriers erected by lawmakers to stand between people,policy, and engagement in our democracy. Direct democracy has no party affiliation, no golf trips with lobbyists, no smoke-filled rooms. Direct democracy is the people’s tool — and we must make sure it thrives.