A Florida group primarily funded by an Illinois billionaire is driving the recent attacks on direct democracy in states such as Ohio, Missouri, South Dakota and Arkansas.
The Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based group affiliated with the alliance of conservative thinktanks called the State Policy Network, has played a key role in recent efforts to raise the threshold for passing citizen ballot initiatives from a simple majority to a supermajority, and to make it harder to place measures on the ballot in the first place.
These efforts are designed to derail citizen-led ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights, raise the minimum wage or expand Medicaid. In effect, FGA and its allies seek to give 41% of the voting population an effective veto over the wishes of the other 59%.
In at least four states, FGA and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, have lobbied or testified in favor of changing ballot initiative rules to enshrine minority rule, and in some cases have financed ballot committees advocating for those changes. FGA has also issued reports, legal memos, op-eds and polling that advocate for gutting direct democracy.
The latest fight is in Ohio, where Republican lawmakers last month passed a measure requiring future constitutional amendments to receive at least 60% support from voters – rather than a simple majority – and that would make it harder for proposed amendments to make it on to the ballot. Ohioans will now vote in August on whether to approve the higher thresholds.
The controversial plan is designed to derail an abortion rights initiative expected to be on the ballot in November.
When Ohio Republicans first proposed the supermajority requirement last year, a representative of FGA’s lobbying arm was the only person who testified in favor. FGA’s lobbying arm again testified in support of the proposal earlier this year, in hearings before the House and Senate. FGA argued that the proposal was necessary to “make it more difficult for out of state billionaires and dark money groups” to change Ohio law.
As the measure moved through Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature, the Illinois billionaire Dick Uihlein gave $1.1m to the newly created “Save Our Constitution PAC”, which ran ads pressuring state lawmakers to support the measure; Uihlein is expected to contribute more as the August vote approaches.
A foundation controlled by Uihlein is also the largest known source of FGA’s funding, giving $17.6m since 2014. Uihlein has also been one of the key funders of election denial. Among other things, Uihlein has poured tens of millions into his “Restoration of America” network that promotes ludicrous election conspiracy theories and which created a controversial database that published voters’ personal information online in the name of uncovering election fraud. In the 2022 cycle, Dick Uihlein and his wife, Liz, were also top donors to election-denying candidates like the Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano and Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant.
FGA has also been promoting a supermajority requirement in Ohio and other states since at least 2021.
That year, FGA issued a legal memo arguing for the constitutionality of a 60% requirement for enacting ballot initiatives, and a report decrying how voters in red states like Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska had approved Medicaid expansion through the ballot initiative process. FGA and its lobbying arm also began testifying in support of state efforts to make it harder to enact ballot measures, and its in-house polling firm released Ohio polling showing voter support for a 60% threshold and for placing other restrictions on the initiative process.
FGA’s tactics in Ohio echo those used previously – and unsuccessfully – in Arkansas and South Dakota.
In Arkansas last year, FGA’s lobbying arm produced a fact sheet, an op-ed and social media posts advocating for Issue 2, which would have raised the ballot initiative threshold to 60%. As the billionaire-backed dark money group warned of “shady groups funded by billionaires you’ve never heard of” pushing ballot measures in Arkansas, it also gave $65,000 to the ballot committee advocating for the supermajority requirement. Arkansas voters defeated the measure by 19 percentage points.
In South Dakota, a representative of FGA’s lobbying arm testified in February 2021 in support of HJR 5003, which would require 60% approval for constitutional amendments. The legislation passed and was placed on the June 2022 ballot, with a goal of thwarting a Medicaid expansion initiative slated for the November 2022 ballot. FGA’s lobbying arm then gave $50,000 to the ballot committee advocating for the supermajority requirement – but voters rejected the measure by 35 points. Later that year, South Dakota voters approved Medicaid expansion.
FGA has also pressed Missouri lawmakers to create new hurdles for the initiative process. In 2021, FGA’s lobbying arm released polling claiming to show public support for “initiative integrity”, then sent a letter to Missouri legislative leadership arguing for a supermajority requirement and other changes to the initiative process. “Without reform,” the letter warned, “[o]ut-of-state billionaires will continue to pump millions of dollars to [promote] destructive, leftist policies like Medicaid expansion.” The group testified in support of Missouri HJR 22 that year, which would have created new requirements for putting measures on the ballot.
FGA’s lobbying arm would go on to testify in support of four different Missouri proposals to erect barriers to the ballot initiative process in 2022, and four more similar proposals this year. The Missouri house passed a measure to raise the initiative threshold, but it unexpectedly failed in the state senate.
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