By Jenna Spinelle
You don’t need to look far these days to find reasons to despair about the state of American politics. From Supreme Court decisions to the January 6 committee hearings, it’s easy to feel like the rights and progress of the past 60 years are slipping away like sand through our fingers.
I spend a lot of my time swimming in these waters and have done hundreds of interviews with people about democracy in some form or another. Most of what I hear from these scholars and experts who study democracy is, frankly, not great.
In my most recent project, however, I talked to everyday people who are out doing the hard work of democracy every day and heard a different story — one that is way more hopeful and provides a blueprint for how citizens can come together to fight for change on the issues they care about.
One of the best examples of this story came from Cincinnati.
Equal rights, not special rights
In the early 90s, Cincinnati was a battleground for conservative Christian organizations that wanted to launch a nationwide campaign to take rights away from LGBTQ+ people; not through the courts or the legislature, but directly from the voters using the ballot initiative.
Ballot initiatives are one way for citizens in more than 20 states and thousands of cities and towns to bring issues they care about directly to their fellow voters. The Christian right seized this tool to push an anti-gay agenda under the banner of “equal rights, not special rights.”
The idea was simple: Gay people should receive the same treatment as everyone else because that was the fair thing to do. They should not, under any circumstances, have anything that could be deemed a “special right” that’s not available to everyone.
Kimberly Dugan, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, wrote about what happened in Cincinnati in her book The Struggle Over Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Rights: Facing Off in Cincinnati. She told me that the campaign was brilliantly designed to get at the heart of a key American value — that everyone should be treated equally.
It worked. Ballot initiatives revoking protections for LGBTQ+ people passed at the statewide level in Colorado and Maine, and cities including Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Springfield, Missouri; and Cincinnati, where Issue 3 passed with 67% of the vote on November 3, 1993.
Not the end of the story
I wasn’t in Cincinnati in 1993, but the stories I heard from those who were there reminded me of the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that I see all the time on social media today. One part disbelief in your fellow citizens and one part despair that there’s a system that would let something like this happen.
But one of the most amazing things about ballot initiatives is that they’re reversible — and that’s what Cincinnati did with the help of the National LGBTQ Task Force. They went door to door with different definitions of fairness and equality that were more inclusive than the vision the Christian right offered a decade earlier.
As a result of that organizing, a new Issue 3 that repealed the previous one and restored protections for LGBTQ+ people passed in 2004. Along the way, the people involved in the campaign learned that their fellow Cincinnatians supported the first Issue 3 because they were swayed by powerful campaign messaging, not because they held discriminatory beliefs or attitudes.
This revelation was enough to restore not just protection from discrimination but faith in people to do the right thing when they’re presented with clear, accurate information about the issue at stake.
Where we go from here
In addition to changing the landscape in Cincinnati, the 2004 campaign showed that the ballot initiative is a tool that can be used to advance issues related to civil rights, equity, and social justice. Since then, it’s helped restore voting rights to formerly-incarcerated people, increase the minimum wage, and curb predatory lending practices — just to name a few.
Not only do ballot measures lead to meaningful policy change and democracy reform, but they can also create new political coalitions among organizers and volunteers who come together to support a shared interest. I heard this sentiment over and over again from the people interviewed for my series When the People Decide, which shares the stories of ballot initiative campaigns from across the country.
If organizations like the Fairness Project and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center have anything to do with it, ballot initiatives will be an even bigger part of American democracy in the future. These organizations are helping citizens advance their ballot measure campaigns and working to defend the initiative process itself from attacks by conservative state legislatures that do not like the progress being made through direct democracy.
There’s a lot of talk these days about finding common ground in politics, but after reporting this series, I think that finding common cause is the real key to breaking through the gridlock.
Ballot initiatives offer a way to move beyond the stasis that can sometimes bog down politics and lead to resentment and frustration. They’re not perfect, but they do represent a path forward and a bit of optimism in a political landscape that can seem pretty gloomy at times.
It’s one thing to fire off an angry social media post about how the system is broken or politicians are corrupt. But it’s something else entirely to decide to do something about it. That’s what organizers in Cincinnati did nearly 20 years ago, and it’s something we all need to remember as we face the next election cycle and beyond. 🔥