Column: Lawmakers in states are handcuffing voters and ignoring election results

A picket sign that reads "Do Your Job" is displayed in front of the Oregon State Capitol
Members of the Oregon Senate have walked out to block passage of bills that minority Republicans oppose. It’s part of an alarming pattern of lawmakers ignoring the will of voters.
(Amanda Loman / Associarted Press)
Share via

Earlier this month, a group of Oregon lawmakers walked off the job, bringing the state Senate to a halt.

The move came after Democrats in the House passed bills on abortion, gun safety and medical care for transgender people that Republicans, a minority in Oregon’s Legislature, strongly opposed.

There is ample room for discussion on each of these issues. In fact, that’s the job of those elected to represent us: draft legislation, debate its merits and make changes where necessary to win the support of a majority of lawmakers.


The process is not always pretty. (Insert famous line here comparing legislating to sausage-making.) Compromise is often frustrating, leaving no one fully satisfied; it can be particularly tough when your party is in the minority and you’re routinely outvoted.

But that’s how our system works. Or, at least, how it’s supposed to. Elections, as they say, have consequences, along with winners and losers.

Increasingly, however, state lawmakers are ignoring election returns and looking to override popular sentiment to impose their own will instead.

It’s a frightening move and a further blow to our already tottering system of democracy.

Democrats drawn by Oregon’s tech jobs and nature have made the state solidly blue. It’s part of a transformation that remade the West and recast the fight for the White House.

May 3, 2023

In Oregon, you have 12 Republican senators and an independent acting like sore losers, or rather children who’ve taken their ball and gone home, stalling action on hundreds of bills and passage of the state’s budget.

The work stoppage, which began May 3, continues even as nearly a dozen lawmakers face disqualification from seeking reelection under a new law aimed at preventing such walkouts.

More on that in a moment.

A person, blurry and close to the camera, stands at right in front of nine headshot portraits of people.
Oregon Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, speaking with reporters at the state Capitol, defended the GOP boycott, the fourth since 2019.
(Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

Elsewhere, and even more insidious, are efforts to blunt one of the most effective tools of direct democracy — the citizen approved initiative — by making it harder for voters to bypass lawmakers and enact measures at the ballot box.

Putting up barriers to voting is bad enough, suggested Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, a progressive group. “Now it’s, ‘How can we restrict the power of those... who actually do make it to the voting booth? ‘“

Much of the anti-democratic impulse is being driven by the abortion issue, which has been at the center of politics since Roe vs. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court last summer.

Voters quickly took matters into their own hands, approving ballot measures to ensure abortion remains safe and legal in a half dozen states, including such conservative strongholds as Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.

GOP lawmakers responded by reaching for handcuffs.

In Ohio, the Legislature is fighting efforts to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution by trying to make it harder to pass an initiative aimed at the November ballot.

A special election preemptively set for August will ask voters whether to raise the threshold to amend the constitution from majority support — which the abortion measure appears to enjoy — to 60%.


Elsewhere, lawmakers aren’t even bothering to seek voter input.

A bill passed by Arkansas’ Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders makes it tougher to qualify ballot measures by more than tripling the number of counties where signatures must be gathered, from 15 to 50.

Legislation in Missouri that would have raised the requirement to approve constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 57% was filibustered to death, but Republicans vowed to bring it up again next year in an effort to thwart an abortion rights initiative.

Similar efforts to undermine citizen democracy are in the works or under consideration in Idaho, North Dakota and Wisconsin — all states where the GOP controls the legislature.

If you think the country’s political polarization and bone-deep partisanship are bad now, just wait.

“Ballot measures offer a pathway to say you do not have to be all-or-nothing,” said Hall, who works through the Fairness Project to pass progressive legislation through citizen-led efforts.

“You can be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative,” she went on, but also want higher wages, legalized abortion and expanded healthcare and, given the chance, will vote to enact those policies if lawmakers refuse.


“There are increasingly few opportunities for people to even engage in those conversations,” Hall said.

Jerry Roberts, who’s followed Feinstein’s career for nearly 50 years, says adversity has steeled her against pressure to retire amid doubts about her capability.

May 21, 2023

In Oregon — where GOP lawmakers walked off the job in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — fed-up voters approved a ballot initiative last November to stop the kind of political petulance now on display. (Two-thirds of the Senate’s 30 members must be present to pass legislation.)

Pushed by the political left, Measure 113 amended Oregon’s constitution to say that any lawmaker missing 10 or more floor sessions would be disqualified from holding office as a senator or representative for the term following their current time in office. It became law with nearly 70% support.

“It passed in Republican districts. It passed in Democratic districts. It passed across the board,” said Jim Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University, outside Portland. The message, he said, was that “people want their legislators to turn up to work regardless of party.”

There is, however, room for interpretation. It’s unclear whether the measure stops a penalized lawmaker from seeking reelection, raising the prospect they could run, win the most votes and then not be seated — which could result in a whole other order of chaos.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans signaled they would stay out until June 25, the last day of the legislative session. Meantime, they have launched a political action committee to raise funds off the boycott and challenge Measure 113 in court.


When it came to elections, it used to be said the people had spoken and that was the final word. But now, ominously, a growing number of lawmakers refuse to pay attention.

Maybe if they’re voted out of office, others will do a better job listening.