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Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Ballot measures shape debate on hot-button issues across the country, drawing millions in outside spending

Ballot measures shape debate on hot-button issues across the country, drawing millions in outside spending

Millions of dollars are funneled into ballot initiatives, which leave hot-button issues like abortion rights, marijuana legalization and medicaid expansion to the public to decide.

In 2023, ballot initiatives in eight states attracted nearly $205.7 million. The previous year, ballot initiatives in all but 11 states collectively drew a whopping $1.1 billion.  

This election year, voters in more than half of the U.S. could decide some of the country’s most contentious issues in November. 


No state attracts more money for ballot initiatives than California, the country’s most populous state. 

One reason for this, experts said, is that it is easier to get issues directly on the ballot under the state’s laws. In most states, like Ohio — which requires hundreds of thousands of signatures across at least half of the state’s 88 counties — it is hard to get anything to voters, said Christian Grose, a professor of public policy and political science at University of Southern California Dornsife. 

 Although California is not an anomaly, he noted, it is an example of “small-d” democracy on the West Coast.

“I think Western states are exceptional in that they they want to encourage voters bills and things on the ballot,” Grose said, which also means that interest groups can more easily advance their issues on the ballot. 

These groups also bring in large amounts of funding, as was the case in 2022 where competing ballot measures that both dealt with sports betting drew in more than $451 million combined. Neither passed once they reached the ballot.

Proposition 27 which would have legalized online sports betting received more than $169 million from Californians for Solutions to Homelessness & Mental Health Support. The group was largely funded by out-of-state gaming groups looking to expand their market, like the Boston-based online platform DraftKings, which poured in more than $34 million into the ballot committee.

A competing bill, Proposition 26, would have legalized sports betting at Indian casinos. That ballot measure took in just over $120 million from the Coalition for Safe Responsible Gaming Sponsored by California Indian Tribes, which urged voters to vote “yes on 26, no on 27.” Thirteen indigenous nations poured money into the group, including the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians and the Federated Indians of Greater Rancheria, which both contributed more than $30 million.

Despite the large amount of funding going into both initiatives, neither was able to receive much support from voters. Prop. 27 was rejected by 82% of California voters, while Prop. 26 was defeated 67-33%. 


The high price tag to fund ballot initiatives in California is expected, Grose said. Due to the size of the state and diverse population, campaigns take more money to get off the ground and in front of voters.

Grose noted that California has “many media markets, many millions of people to reach by social media, by mailers … especially on the ballot propositions, the use of mail to send to mailboxes of voters is pretty common and so that can be pretty expensive to do.”

According to an OpenSecrets analysis, ballot initiatives in California in 2022 attracted more than $709.3 million. That is more money than every other state with ballot measures combined. 

Grose also noted that in California, state and local officials will sometimes attach themselves to an issue to broadcast their political strength.

For example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, endorsed Proposition 1, which would reconfigure the state’s Mental Health Services Act to encourage more housing production treatments beds and provide nearly $6.4 billion in bond money. Prop 1 is currently leading by a slim margin of 0.4%, according to CalMatters and the California Secretary of State. Results will not be certified until April.


Some measures that have pulled in large attention and funds include social issues like health care and education, as was the case with California’s 2022 Proposition 29. The measure sought to change state dialysis regulations and force centers to have at least one physician available while patients were being treated, report dialysis-related infections and prevent centers from discriminating against patients based on payment method. 

The measure, which failed by 68%, drew more than $90 million, a bulk of which came from dialysis companies and other special interests opposed to the proposal. 

A committee called Stop Yet Another Dangerous Dialysis Proposition received more than $45 million in donations from DeVita Inc., a national dialysis service based in Colorado, which opposed the law. 

By contrast, ballot committees that supported the initiative received about $16 million.

This type of disproportionate funding is where things might not always be in the best interest of voters, John Matsusaka, a business and law professor at the University of Southern California, told OpenSecrets. 

“Where I think we can go wrong — where democracy can go wrong — is when the voters only hear one side of the argument,” he said.

Two other ballot measures dealing with dialysis have been presented to voters in the last 10 years, both raising more than $100 million in total, and both failing to pass. The top opposition funder each time was DeVita Inc.


Perhaps no other ballot issue has generated as much attention as abortion rights.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the federal right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in 2022, seven states have voted on abortion-related ballot measures with the side favoring abortion rights winning each election.

Of those, four enshrined a right to abortion in their state constitution: California, Michigan, Ohio and Vermont. Another two — Kansas and Kentucky — shot down constitutional amendments that would have denied a right to abortion. And in Montana, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have forced medical workers to intercede when a baby is born after an attempted abortion.

Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue spent $219.1 million on these fights. In 2022 and 2023, groups seeking to protect abortion rights spent more than $150.2 on ballot measures, while those seeking to restrict access to abortion spent more than $68.8 million, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of campaign finance reports.


At least 14 states have efforts underway to put abortion rights on the ballot in 2024, according to KFF and The 19th

So far, Maryland and New York are the only states where voters are certain to decide whether their state should protect abortion access in November. But coalitions in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada and South Dakota are gathering signatures to bring the issue to a vote in those states. Similar ballot measures are awaiting approval by lawmakers in Iowa, Pennsylvania and Maine, while other initiatives are currently facing legal challenges in Florida and Montana

Abortion policy is certain to attract a lot of money again. The anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America last month announced that it intends to spend $92 million on elections in eight battleground states, including three states where abortion rights could be on the ballot: Arizona, Montana and Pennsylvania. A spokesperson for the group declined to go into more detail about how much of that money it could devote to ballot measures.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Freedom for All, and several progressive organizations are expected to spend tens of millions to help codify abortion rights in state constitutions, just as they did during the previous two years, according to POLITICO. The Fairness Project — a progressive organization that boasts of winning 32 of 34 ballot campaigns, including the 2023 Ohio referendum on abortion rights — is already working to pass abortion-related ballot measures in Arizona, Missouri and Montana.  

Track the money behind referendums in your state using OpenSecrets’ ballot measure web app.


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