Report: The Promise of Direct Democracy for Momentum-Driven Social Movements

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

For years, mass social movements have been organized around a crucial belief: that in a functioning democracy, if you can persuade 51% of the population to support a cause, you can affect needed policy change through the democratic process. (This is related to what is called the popular theory of power: that power in a society is ultimately held by the people through their consent to be governed, which can be withheld.)

This famous cartoon demonstrates the popular theory of power. I can’t figure out who drew it, so let me know if you can.

We could say that belief is true by definition, with the key phrase being functioning democracy. In 2014, however, skeptics who had argued this phrase should not be applied to the United States were vindicated. That year, Princeton University published an analysis of 20 years of data comparing public opinion on different proposed laws to the likelihood those laws would pass. The findings were bleak: the data appears to show that the opinions of the less-wealthy 90% of Americans have virtually no impact on whether or not a bill would become law. Only the economic elites in the top 10% of society (read: the donor class) have any influence over the political process. In other words, the United States is no democracy; it is an oligarchy.

While the claims of this study have been debated academically, it would be a mistake to dismiss them out of hand. At best, it may simply be the case that the U.S. political system has become so dysfunctional that no segment of the public has any influence over it, that almost no law can be passed regardless of popular support. Either way, the strategy of convincing 51% of the population to support a policy may not be sufficient on its own.

A central idea in Pax Fauna’s theory of change is distinguishing between cultural and institutional change strategies. I have written elsewhere about the difference between these and further argued that while they compliment each other at the level of movement ecology, they are generally incompatible within a single organization. However, there is one pathway to concrete policy changes which largely collapses this distinction: direct ballot initiatives. 

24 states plus Washington, D.C. allow ordinary citizens to draft statutes and/or state constitutional amendments and collect signatures to have them placed before voters in a general election. A further 39 states make provision for initiatives at the municipal and county levels. Blue-leaning states with statewide initiatives include California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada and Michigan. 


Ballot measures ought to be highly appealing to momentum-driven social movements. First, direct democracy is harmonious with the popular theory of power and the focus on winning over the hearts and minds of the public. Second, using state and local campaigns as stepping stones to build power and gain visibility is ideally suited to the cycle of momentum. Ballot campaigns even have an escalation built in, with an initial phase collecting a small number of signatures and a larger phase winning votes from a majority of the public. Third, state-level victories have been key to recent social movement victories, with both Freedom to Marry and the NRA successfully pursuing a state-by-state strategy to create a sense of inevitability around their issue. (Both movements eventually won nationally in the Supreme Court, further bypassing partisan gridlock in Congress.) Fourth, ballot initiatives bypass the House of Cards-style personal and partisan politics of institutional campaigns that rely on influencing individual decision makers, replacing it with a simple numbers game of mass popular appeal in which the cultural and policy objectives are nearly identical. For this reason, a ballot campaign which ends in defeat would still obviously be a productive use of the movement’s time, because the main efforts would be about outreaching to and persuading the public. Contrast this with a failed institutional campaign, in which the individuals or institutions you try to influence are unlikely to do anything at all for your movement the moment your attention has moved away from them. In other words, there is no sunk cost in a ballot initiative campaign. These campaigns also have the potential to bypass the oligarchic dynamics of the normal legislative process.

Fifth, state and local ballot issues have proven to be a much more promising pathway for progressive policies than electoral politics. Notably, in 2020, ambitious progressive policies succeeded in states that voted for Trump over Biden and saw Democrats shed congressional seats. Florida passed a $15 minimum wage by nearly 22 points while going for Trump by more than 3 points (following up their enfranchisement of felons in 2018, two years after voting for Trump the first time). Meanwhile Alaska adopted ranked-choice voting, while Montana and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. Even in blue states, voters behaved much more progressively on ballot initiatives than congressional elections. Oregon voters decriminalized possession of all drugs in small quantities, by 20 points, while Coloradans created a paid family leave insurance program through the state and joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Why did voters support these policies while electing politicians who oppose them? The most obvious explanation centers on the fact that the vast majority of voters are minimally aware of politics. Most voters don’t think of policies in terms of “progressive,” “liberal,” or “conservative.” Indeed, even highly partisan voters often know relatively little about their party’s platform beyond a few key issues most important to them. One of the idiosyncrasies of American politics is that while far more voters consider themselves “conservative” than “liberal” or “progressive,” progressives enjoy far more widespread support for their actual policies, from Medicare for All (70% support) and similar economic issues like raising the minimum wage, cancelling student debt, and mandating family leave, even to more cultural issues such as drug enforcement and, yes, abortion. The disconnect can be attributed in part to a far more effective messaging strategy on the part of Republicans than their Democratic counterparts, and more generally to the ability of tribalism to override rational thinking. Psychologist Drew Westen, among others, has demonstrated the powerful effect of tribal affiliation in political decision making, showing that the rational brains of partisan voters in fMRI machines largely shut off the moment a signal of tribal affiliation is introduced into the equation. The success of progressive policies at the ballot box suggests that while Republicans have succeeded in painting Democrats as a party of out-of-touch corporatist elites (which is an entirely accurate portrayal), they have not succeeded in generating opposition to the policy agenda of the populist left, and that when filling out a ballot, voters who loyally elect candidates based on party might take a more discerning approach to deciding how they will vote on ballot measures. 

In summary, ballot initiatives provide an opportunity for social movement to appeal directly to voters for change, bypassing not only the byzantine political gamesmanship of electoral politics, but also the ideological tribalism which has ground national policy making to a halt, or more accurately, driven it out of congress and into the hands of the executive and the courts. By focusing on ballot initiatives, a social movement could legitimize its struggle with a real institutional demand, and even win real institutional demands, without being caught up in dysfunctional partisan politics (and likely being co-opted by the centrist oligarchy which controls both major parties anyway).

State-by-State Petition Requirements

For campaigners using the momentum theory of change, the most important immediate goal is not winning incremental policy changes, but increasing the active and passive popular support for the movement. That means winning more members of the public over to agree with the cause, and getting a smaller subset of them to actually join the movement, increasing its capacity and thus its ability to reach the public. Concrete policy changes are a tertiary goal in the immediate term. That said, winning concrete demands can be crucial to sustaining momentum, and a well-designed policy goal will also have a real, immediate positive impact on people’s lives (animals lives in this case).

Winning a ballot initiative campaign requires two subsequent victories: collecting enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and winning a majority (or sometimes a supermajority) at the polls. Clearly, both of these objectives are totally compatible with the larger goal of social and cultural change; both are examples of passive popular support. Thus anything which exists in the arsenal of momentum campaigning to influence public opinion is a useful and appropriate strategy for advancing a ballot campaign. Of course, these campaigns also demand particular attention be given to canvassing in order to collect signatures. 

Some Intimidating Numbers

Collecting enough signatures to get an issue on the ballot can be enormously challenging. Indeed, this may be the more difficult step. In California, for instance, 623,212 signatures are currently required to get a statute on the ballot (an amendment requires 997,139). Campaigns have a limited window of time to collect signatures; California’s 180-day window is typical. If you got every single person in Oakland to sign the petition, you’d be less than 70% of the way there. If every volunteer canvasser collected 100 signatures on average, you’d need well over six thousand volunteers. Most campaigns hire a petition company instead. In 2018, the average cost per signature in 2018 was $6.07; the average cost just to get an issue on the ballot was thus over $2.5 million. Of the eight propositions placed on the ballot this way, five were defeated and three passed.

California requires the largest number of any state, befitting its status as the most populous state. Most states set that threshold as a percentage (typically 5% or 6% for statutes) of the total votes cast for governor or secretary of state in the previous election. In many states, the threshold for putting forward a constitutional amendment is higher than a statute. It may require more signatures or a supermajority of votes. In Colorado, signatures for amendments must be distributed across the state’s 35 senate districts, with 2% of each district signing. This is considered a tremendous hurdle, but it does not apply to statutes, only amendments. Florida, Mississippi, and Illinois only allow amendments. The rules about what laws can be proposed as amendments vs. as statues tend to be vague, and it falls to state regulators and courts to determine whether the proposal is viable.

Most Promising States

Here you can view a table laying out the 24 states which allow voter initiatives. It tracks the number of signatures required and the percentage that number represents of registered voters, along with the window of time each state allows for collecting signatures. I’ve also included different facts about the state which may suggest states more likely to be favorable to our messaging. Animal agriculture is not currently seen as a partisan issue, so in addition to partisan tilt I’ve included measures like urban vs. rural population which may make states more or less hospitable.

The ideal state for a ballot initiative campaign would meet the following criteria:

  • Smaller number of signatures required to place a statute on the ballot.
  • Several concentrated urban populations where organizing can take place.
  • Relatively left-leaning politics.
  • A history of passing significant reforms through ballot measures.
  • An animal agriculture presence large enough to make the initiative relevant and to create a dramatic confrontation (including actions at farms and slaughterhouses), but not so large that it exerts dominant control over state politics. 

Oregon and Colorado stand out as states with moderate signature requirements (112,020; 124,632) and favorable politics. Both have a habit of passing major, nation-leading reforms through ballot measures, especially on non-partisan issues like drug legalization. Both states have Democratic trifectas. Each state’s current signature requirement comprises just under 5% of registered voters (the average is 6.1%). Both states have prominent urban areas; Portland in particular has a strong existing activist scene which could be befriended, and which tends to be more friendly towards animal freedom than other progressive scenes. One difference stands out: Colorado hosts a large presence of two of the world’s largest slaughter corporations (Smithfield and JBS), while Oregon’s ag sector is dominated by smaller beef and dairy operations. Having a more consolidated slaughter industry as the opponent presents pros and cons. Mainly, Smithfield and JBS are less sympathetic enemies, but they have far more money for an opposition campaign. It’s likely, however, that major slaughter corporations would invest in opposition in any state regardless of whether they operate there.

Municipal Initiatives

The administration of municipal ballot initiatives is more heterogeneous. Each county and city publishes its own guidelines on how many signatures and votes are required. For a rough sense of the scale of municipal ballot campaigns in 2020, Portland required 37,638 signatures; Denver County required 9,788, 2% of registered voters; 2% in Boulder county was 4,908. Clearly, these numbers are much more achievable. For a different route, conservative, agrarian Weld County, CO, home of a massive JBS slaughterhouse, requires just over 4,000; Yuma County, home of a major Smithfield operation, had a total of 6,008 registered voters in 2020. 

Otherwise, the process of registering a voter initiative is essentially the same at the local level as at the state level. Rather than conduct a comprehensive review of these jurisdictions now, Pax Fauna can prepare to efficiently conduct that research when mobilization reaches a significant enough level in specific geographies.