Ballot Initiatives and Referendums: A Complete Waste of Time

A Favorite Tactic for Many Conservatives, Referendums are a Complete Waste of Time and Set Your Cause Back!

Serious activists understand that working to change public policy are usually long-term battles that require a long-term vision, and a focus on growing your organization’s lists, money, and people.

Because many activists lack this long-term vision, they often flame out soon after they get involved in politics for one reason or another.

But oftentimes, these activists try one last ‘Hail-Mary’ when it comes to getting their bill passed, and that’s the referendum or ballot initiative process.

In case you aren’t aware, this process consists of getting enough voters from your state to sign a petition calling for the state to put your issue on the ballot at the next General Election.

It’s Deceptively Attractive

I understand why so many well-meaning people are drawn to this approach.

It’s safe. It’s easy. No politician will scream at you for doing this, and you won’t be threatened either.

It’s also attractive to those who are looking to ‘do something.’ Marshalling volunteers and pounding the pavement makes people feel like they are accomplishing something.

These efforts also combine to generate lots of headlines and buzz.

All in all, there is a lot of political ‘street theater’ to these efforts that appeals to many.

But there is a reason why these efforts are so safe and so unthreatening to the legislature: they are doomed to fail, and everyone in power knows it.

No One is On the Record

To effect public policy change, you usually have to spend time obtaining or forcing votes on your legislation (getting crushed initially) to get the legislature on record for or against your bill.

Then, if you are running a solid election program where you expose the incumbent’s bad votes to his voters, the voters will often remove the incumbents — increasing your chances of getting your bill passed over time.

But it all starts with getting them on the record.

With a referendum, after all the dust settles from a major public fight, no one in the legislature has to go on the record for or against your bill.

Worse, they can literally talk out of both sides of their mouth, depending on their audience.

So not only will you be unable to hold that legislator accountable for voting against your bill — he’ll be able to increase his support base by playing both sides!

It’s Wildly Expensive

Ok, maybe it’s not that costly if you’re just doing this with ten friends on a few Saturday afternoons.

But a real, statewide effort to mobilize half of the voters in the state to support your issue is incredibly expensive.

You’ll need a statewide TV program, a statewide radio program, a statewide social media program (and no, that’s not free,) and a statewide ground game.

You’ll need hundreds of thousands and likely millions of dollars to run this effectively. Here’s a hint — our side never has that kind of money. (And if you did, it would be a waste to spend it given the reason above.)

What’s more, whatever amount of cash you could raise would be dwarfed by your opponents. And I do mean dwarfed.

For pro-life activists who attempt this, you’re going up against the federally funded Planned Parenthood, who can literally spend tens of millions of dollars to stop you.

If you’re trying to combat forced unionism, the unions will be able to draw from their national pocketbook and spend millions of dollars (stolen from workers who don’t always want to be a union member) to stop your attempt.

I could go on.

It’s Usually Do or Die for Your Organization

When a nonprofit organization loses a political fight in the short term, they will emerge with more members, activists, email addresses, and money -– assuming that they picked the right political fights.

One of the groups that I get to work with, Iowa Gun Owners, lost their fight to pass Stand-Your-Ground law for six years in a row.

But each year this fight added more members, money, and activists to the organization. And, in 2017, they had enough political capital to bring to bear in their state legislature and they passed the biggest gun bill in state history.

But if you are in an all-or-nothing situation like a referendum, all of your organizational eggs are placed into one basket.

In my experience, the activists who go through these experiences rarely remain involved after suffering defeat, because they and their organization do not emerge stronger.

On the contrary, many suffer burnout and leave politics all together.

Political Fallout

Some may say to themselves that they can have their cake and eat it too, that you can try the referendum approach and, if that fails, try the legislative approach.

But that is the voice of political naïveté.

The reality is far different. Should you attempt to walk into your state capitol after losing a referendum battle, you’ll find that nobody will work with you.

Oh sure, they will still tell you they support your issue, but now they get to blame their inaction on ‘the people.’

It will sound something like this, “Gee whiz John, you know I’m with you, you know I support your issue, but the people have spoken and they don’t want this.”

They will continue with something like, “But if you go out there and organize more people, you will force the legislature to listen to you.”

Do you see what happened there?

In one two-minute conversation, they have totally negated your entire program, and have you leaving the capitol convinced that it is your obligation to act — when they are the ones that are elected to do just that.

But that’s your fault.

Your failed referendum gave them a political ‘get out of jail free card.’ It’s every politician’s dream come true.

Bottom line: you are going to have to wait for years for the majority of the legislature to be recycled before you can attempt a legislative program after losing a referendum.

Case Study: Mississippi’s Personhood Amendment 26 (November 2011)

Perhaps the most clear-cut example of this dynamic would be examining what took place in Mississippi in the summer and fall of 2011.

If enacted, Amendment 26 would have effectively outlawed abortion in the state of Mississippi!

Hundreds of well-meaning pro-life activists, both in Mississippi and from all across the country, spent a year gathering 106,325 signatures to put the Personhood Amendment on the ballot for a statewide vote.

At every step of the process, Planned Parenthood was there to oppose them.

Be it lawsuits, challenges to the ballot certification process, and an all-out media campaign in the weeks leading up to the vote — Planned Parenthood was able to spend your tax dollars to oppose this initiative.

In the end, 367,991 people voted to end abortion in Mississippi while 500,459 people voted against the initiative, meaning that the initiative failed 42% to 57%.

Through it all, Mississippi legislators played both sides of the fence. No one did this better than then–Governor Haley Barbour.

Barbour was all over the news in the months leading up to this vote. His commentary was always some variation of, “While I am 100% pro-life, I’m not sure this is the right approach.”

Or, “I believe in life at conception legislation, but I don’t believe this bill will make it through the courts.”

In other words, he got to have his cake and eat it too, and so did every legislator who was in a swing district across the state.

Think about this.

367,991 pro-lifers went to the polls to try to end abortion and not a single RINO Republican legislator — who would not support this legislation in the capitol — faced a primary because of it!

Worse, for the reasons listed above, this legislation went nowhere the next year when it was attempted to be run through the legislature.

To my knowledge, pro-life activists in that state have come nowhere close to even obtaining a vote on this bill in the years that have followed.

There are only 99 Representatives in the Mississippi House, with 33 members in their State Senate.

In other words, it only takes 50 votes in the House and 17 votes in the Senate to end abortion in Mississippi.

And of that small number of legislators, certainly a big portion of them would publicly and privately support the bill.

In other words, all of the firepower that pro-life organizations could have brought to bear in the state could have come down on the heads of 10 or 20 legislators with great effect.

Instead, those resources were largely wasted in a PR battle against the nation’s leading proponent of abortion with virtually unlimited funds to spend.

And no, the organizations on the ground in Mississippi did not emerge from this stronger.

Public records show that Personhood Mississippi, the organization leading the charge, raised less than $50,000 during this fight.

Worse, the organization emerged from this with less than 3,000 email contacts.

Worse still, knowing many of the activists who were involved in that fight, I can tell you that many of them have largely left the pro-life fight in its entirety.

Of course, none of this is to question the motives of the activists who were involved, who poured their hearts out in a year and a half long fight.


While the ballot initiative or referendum process may be attractive to activists who want to “do something” to advance their issue, it always ends in failure.

And, as described above, the legislative and personal setbacks are so severe that it will take years to recover from.

We have a Republic for a reason.

You and I do not have to convince half of our state to support our issue. Rather, we have to force the Governor and half of the legislature, plus one vote, to be successful.

The way to do that is by building an overwhelming amount of grassroots energy across the state.

This means building lists, raising money, and forcing votes on your legislation so that you can hold bad incumbents accountable in their districts.

Sure, it takes a lot of time.

And of course, much of this is boring and repetitive hard work that takes place over long periods of time.

But I can tell you, from 10 years of experience in the trenches, this is the only way to get things done when you are trying to pass confrontational legislation.

For more specialized assistance regarding your political fight, or to host a training seminar in your town, please don’t hesitate to contact me.