Peter Hurford: U.S. Ballot Initiatives as a Pathway for EA Policy

Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives have al­lowed many groups in the United States to achieve policy out­comes out­side the tra­di­tional leg­is­la­tive pro­cess. In this talk, Peter Hur­ford, a co-founder and re­searcher at Re­think Pri­ori­ties, de­scribes how the EA move­ment can gen­er­ate change through the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess by match­ing effec­tive poli­cies to promis­ing states and cities.

A tran­script of Peter’s talk, which we have ed­ited lightly for clar­ity, is be­low. You can also watch the talk on YouTube or read it on effec­tivealtru­

The Talk

Re­think Pri­ori­ties is a re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to find­ing awe­some causes for EAs to sup­port. One of those causes is the bal­lot-ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess, and I’m ex­cited to talk to you about that to­day

But be­fore we get into bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, I’d like to ask: How do we pass policy here in the United States?

PH1 You might be fa­mil­iar with the Se­nate and the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. They have a rep­u­ta­tion for get­ting noth­ing done. You may have a piece of leg­is­la­tion that you’re ex­cited about, but it gets stuck for years. It doesn’t even come up for a vote, let alone pass out of the House and Se­nate.

You might have to find a lob­by­ist to help pro­mote your leg­is­la­tion. And where are the lob­by­ists? I don’t know. I haven’t seen any and they might be ex­pen­sive. [En­gag­ing one] is an opaque, difficult pro­cess that is prone to failure.

But with bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, you put poli­cies di­rectly on the bal­lot for peo­ple to vote on, rather than vot­ing for a par­tic­u­lar sen­a­tor or rep­re­sen­ta­tive to pass them for you. If enough peo­ple vote “yes,” a policy be­comes law with­out in­volv­ing any sen­a­tors or rep­re­sen­ta­tives.


It is a way to bring policy di­rectly to the peo­ple, and it doesn’t get bogged down in com­mit­tee. This makes it eas­ier to pass a de­sired policy, and the pro­cess is more ac­cessible for mem­bers of the EA com­mu­nity.

First, I’m go­ing to ad­dress why I think it’s eas­ier to pass the de­sired policy by look­ing at what hap­pened in 2014.

I am not im­ply­ing that EAs are al­igned with the Demo­cratic Party, but in con­sid­er­ing the differ­ence be­tween the fed­eral level and the bal­lot-ini­ti­a­tive level, it’s still use­ful to an­a­lyze the Democrats. In 2014, the Democrats had a bad year on the na­tional level. They lost nine differ­ent Se­nate seats and 13 House seats. At the same time, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives passed leg­is­la­tion that Democrats fa­vor. Four states voted to le­gal­ize mar­ijuana di­rectly on the bal­lot, and two states ex­panded crim­i­nal rights and re­duced sen­tences for crim­i­nals.

Ben Cas­sel­man, a poli­ti­cal an­a­lyst, summed this up by say­ing he was sur­prised that vot­ers want a higher min­i­mum wage, ac­cess to mar­ijuana, and more ac­cess to abor­tions, but are, in many cases, vot­ing for Repub­li­cans.


This is the para­dox of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. We can see it in 2018 as well.

Democrats lost more Se­nate seats, but gained a lot of House seats. And more states le­gal­ized mar­ijuana on the bal­lot and ex­panded crim­i­nal rights. We even passed land­mark leg­is­la­tion here in Cal­ifor­nia to pro­duce more cage-free [an­i­mal welfare] re­forms.


This para­dox of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives is ev­i­dent el­se­where. In Wash­ing­ton state, in May [2019], the state leg­is­la­ture passed a sweep­ing cage-free egg law. But it hap­pened be­cause vot­ers threat­ened that if leg­is­la­tors didn’t pass that leg­is­la­tion, they would cre­ate a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive and pass it any­way. At the same time, on the fed­eral level, Con­gress­man Steve King — who thinks cage-free re­forms are a vi­o­la­tion of free trade — is work­ing to out­law all cage-free re­forms and cre­ate one stan­dard na­tion­wide that doesn’t truly ac­count for an­i­mal welfare. There are states and bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives pro­vid­ing a lot of suc­cesses, but at the fed­eral level, we are not even hold­ing steady; we are go­ing back­wards.

Gen­er­ally, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives have worked well for an­i­mal welfare re­form.


Many states have passed bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to ex­pand an­i­mal welfare rights, such as Cal­ifor­nia, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Maine, Mas­sachusetts, and even Ohio. This bal­lot-ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess has de­liv­ered a lot of vic­to­ries in an­i­mal welfare, and it can de­liver a lot of vic­to­ries in other policy ar­eas as well.


For ex­am­ple, we can see that it has been used to pass 22 differ­ent min­i­mum-wage in­creases and sup­port same-sex mar­riage. [Note: There is no “offi­cial” EA po­si­tion on poli­ti­cal is­sues; these ex­am­ples rep­re­sent the speaker’s views only.]

At the same time, [con­ser­va­tive groups are also] us­ing the pro­cess. A lot of pro-death penalty leg­is­la­tion has been passed at the bal­lot-ini­ti­a­tive level. And there have been anti-an­i­mal welfare ini­ti­a­tives at the bal­lot-ini­ti­a­tive level. Ad­di­tion­ally, leg­is­la­tion is not always suc­cess­ful. Mar­ijuana de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion, which we think of as tak­ing off right now, has a bat­ting av­er­age that is barely above .500. That is why we need to get out there and pass as many ini­ti­a­tives as we can and be strate­gic about where we pass them. But we don’t nec­es­sar­ily need to ex­pe­rience suc­cess in ev­ery sin­gle area.

That is the gen­eral case for why I think it’s eas­ier to pass our de­sired poli­cies us­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, as op­posed to figur­ing out how to get leg­is­la­tion through at the fed­eral level. But I also want to talk about how ac­cessible this pro­cess is. For the EA move­ment, which is still a fairly young move­ment with limited con­nec­tions, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are doable.


There are 27 states in the U.S. that can pass bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. The pro­cess is mainly pop­u­lar in the West. Every state has its own set of laws. No state has the same pro­cess, but these pro­cesses can be eas­ily un­der­stood and mas­tered. Also, there are not just states, but mu­ni­ci­pal­ities to con­sider.

In cities like Seat­tle, Berkeley, Los An­ge­les, and Bos­ton, you can pass bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives at the city level as well. That might be even more ac­cessible for us.

Here is an ex­am­ple of how to ap­proach the bal­lot-ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess. Again, be­cause ev­ery state is differ­ent, I have picked a spe­cific ex­am­ple us­ing the state of Cal­ifor­nia:


* You start out by com­plet­ing a pre­limi­nary filing.
* You cre­ate a pe­ti­tion that you want to put on the bal­lot.
* The state gov­ern­ment re­views your pe­ti­tion. They are not al­lowed to re­move it be­cause they dis­like you or think your idea is un­pop­u­lar. But they are al­lowed to de­ter­mine whether it is un­con­sti­tu­tional. You must make sure your bal­lot ac­cords with the state con­sti­tu­tion.
* There is a 30-day pub­lic re­view pe­riod, dur­ing which time peo­ple are al­lowed to com­ment pub­li­cly on your ini­ti­a­tive.
* You pre­pare the pe­ti­tion that you will ac­tu­ally take to the streets, to the pub­lic, be­cause you need to col­lect over 600,000 sig­na­tures. And if you want to get this on the bal­lot in 2020, you had bet­ter hurry, be­cause the sig­na­tures are due by April.
* Once you have those sig­na­tures, and they are de­ter­mined to be le­gi­t­i­mate (e.g., not just hun­dreds of names writ­ten by a sin­gle per­son), your mea­sure goes on the bal­lot. If you voted here in Cal­ifor­nia, you’ve prob­a­bly seen such mea­sures. There might even be so many that you are over­whelmed by the num­ber of them on your bal­lot.
* On elec­tion day, peo­ple vote yes or no for your mea­sure. You have to meet a spe­cific thresh­old, which is usu­ally, but not always, 50%.
* If it passes, your bal­lot mea­sure be­comes law. That’s ba­si­cally it. You’ve passed a law. Con­grat­u­la­tions.

While I did say this pro­cess was ac­cessible, that is a rel­a­tive term; it’s not nec­es­sar­ily ac­cessible for all of us. You do need some re­sources.

You need to be able to hire con­sul­tants and lawyers. You need to be able to hire a ro­bust sig­na­ture-col­lec­tion team to get hun­dreds of thou­sands of sig­na­tures. And de­pend­ing on where you’re try­ing to pass the ini­ti­a­tive, what kind of ini­ti­a­tive it is, and how pop­u­lar it is, you usu­ally need some­where be­tween $400,000 and $12 mil­lion. That money is for col­lect­ing sig­na­tures and for TV ad­ver­tis­ing to help con­vince peo­ple to pass the ini­ti­a­tive.

The pro­cess usu­ally takes one to three years. Some­times you can speed things up — es­pe­cially if you have a lot of money — and other times it is more difficult. It varies from state to state. I would recom­mend that if you want to do some­thing for 2020, you hurry up. But we also have 2022 and 2024 to look for­ward to, so maybe you can take a more re­laxed ap­proach to your ini­ti­a­tive pac­ing.

This isn’t some­thing that we’re do­ing in the EA move­ment, [but some EA or­ga­ni­za­tions have pro­vided the fund­ing for oth­ers to do it].


The Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject, which is a ma­jor EA foun­da­tion, has given $1.5 mil­lion to ad­vance crim­i­nal jus­tice re­forms in Florida and $4 mil­lion for cage-free egg ini­ti­a­tives here in Cal­ifor­nia. Both of those ini­ti­a­tives passed.

Re­think Pri­ori­ties is try­ing to be­come more in­volved in bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. Right now, we’re fo­cus­ing on an­i­mal welfare re­forms, such as the sweep­ing cage-free leg­is­la­tion that we’ve already seen be very suc­cess­ful. We’re try­ing to de­ter­mine how we can take that fur­ther and which poli­cies we might want to pass next to keep the mo­men­tum go­ing in an­i­mal welfare.

We’re do­ing a lot of anal­y­sis of bal­lot-ini­ti­a­tive strat­egy. We’ve started work­ing with Civis An­a­lyt­ics to run polls and de­velop pre­dic­tive mod­els to iden­tify poli­cies that we think can pass in par­tic­u­lar states and cities. We’re go­ing to be pro­duc­ing much more de­tailed anal­y­sis than what is in to­day’s talk, and we will put it up on the Effec­tive Altru­ism Fo­rum for ev­ery­one to see.

Mar­cus, Neil, and David from Re­think Pri­ori­ties are also on our policy team. You can see more of our work at re­thinkpri­ori­ You can sign up for our newslet­ter. You can email me. I am in­ter­ested in talk­ing with peo­ple who want to par­ti­ci­pate in the bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess, fund other bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive pro­cesses, or who are ex­cited to pass im­por­tant leg­is­la­tion and get things mov­ing. Thank you.

Moder­a­tor: What can be done when state lead­er­ship ig­nores the out­come of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, such as the Florida ex­pan­sion of vot­ing rights to former felons?

Peter: They can’t liter­ally ig­nore the ini­ti­a­tive be­cause it be­comes law once it has been passed. To veto a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive, they would need to pass their own leg­is­la­tion, so it does need to re­ceive ma­jor­ity sup­port. But it is im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge that bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives aren’t per­ma­nent. Like any other law, they can be re­pealed. You can get into some­thing like a ping-pong match, where you keep pass­ing an ini­ti­a­tive that is sub­se­quently re­pealed. But that ac­tu­ally doesn’t hap­pen too fre­quently. When we looked into that, we found that fewer than 5% of ini­ti­a­tives are re­pealed by the state. Most ini­ti­a­tives are here to stay.

Moder­a­tor: That’s good to hear. Another ques­tion: Do you have con­cerns about a leg­is­la­ture weak­en­ing a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive af­ter it passes? I’m think­ing about the vot­ing rights amend­ment in Florida. Do you have data or a hunch for how of­ten this hap­pens?

Peter: As I said, it doesn’t hap­pen too of­ten — usu­ally 5% of the time or less. Leg­is­la­tors usu­ally don’t re­ally want to over­rule the pop­u­lar will of the peo­ple that ex­plic­itly. In Florida, there is a 60% thresh­old to pass ini­ti­a­tives. So any­thing that passes in Florida has to be fairly pop­u­lar. Leg­is­la­tors don’t want to open them­selves up to pub­lic back­lash. But it is im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge that ini­ti­a­tives are not per­ma­nent.

Moder­a­tor: What are some of the most ex­cit­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive ideas you’ve put thought into?

Peter: I’m still re­ally ex­cited about the mo­men­tum we’ve been see­ing in cage-free egg laws, es­pe­cially those ban­ning the sale of caged eggs from other states. There used to be a pretty large loop­hole such that it would be ille­gal to grow chick­ens in cages, but other states could sim­ply im­port as many caged eggs as they wanted. But now, Cal­ifor­nia has out­lawed even the sale of caged eggs, so that adds im­pact. I’m ex­cited to see that hap­pen­ing in other states, like Wash­ing­ton in May, where they passed more cage-free egg re­form.

Moder­a­tor: What do you think the low­est-hang­ing fruit is for an­i­mal ini­ti­a­tives, and in which states do you think it is worth­while to lobby for them?

Peter: Cal­ifor­nia and Mas­sachusetts have been the two states where it has been eas­iest to pass this kind of leg­is­la­tion. They were also some of the first states to pass leg­is­la­tion for cage-free eggs. Ari­zona also tends to be a very good state. Ne­vada, Ore­gon, and Wash­ing­ton also tend to be sur­pris­ingly re­cep­tive to an­i­mal welfare re­form and have an ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess.

Gen­er­ally, you want to find a sweet spot where there’s enough of an an­i­mal in­dus­try that your ini­ti­a­tive mat­ters, but not so much that there are too many peo­ple who will op­pose an­i­mal welfare ini­ti­a­tives.

Moder­a­tor: Is there a risk that pop­u­lariz­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives en­courages their use among peo­ple with re­ally bad ideas?

Peter: Yes, there is. We live in a democ­racy, and one of the down­sides of a democ­racy is that peo­ple with bad ideas are just as el­i­gible to par­ti­ci­pate as you are. It’s not an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime. We need to go out there and win hearts and minds for our causes. So there’s definitely room for in­ter­per­sonal ad­vo­cacy as well.

Moder­a­tor: It’s clear that some pos­i­tive poli­cies can be passed through bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. But as you men­tioned, there are also nega­tive poli­cies that could be passed, like anti-an­i­mal welfare laws. Do you think that more pos­i­tive than nega­tive poli­cies can be passed through these ini­ti­a­tives?

Peter: I do, al­though it de­pends on what you think of as a pos­i­tive ini­ti­a­tive. I don’t want to nec­es­sar­ily speak on be­half of the en­tire EA move­ment by la­bel­ing par­tic­u­lar poli­cies as pos­i­tive or nega­tive. But in an­i­mal welfare re­form so far — at least since 2000 — there has been a lot more pro-an­i­mal welfare leg­is­la­tion than anti-an­i­mal welfare leg­is­la­tion. And we’ve been see­ing more vic­to­ries with agri­cul­ture ini­ti­a­tives. Of course, that could change in the fu­ture if agri­cul­ture ad­vo­cates be­come more or­ga­nized or bet­ter funded. But for now, we seem to be in a good po­si­tion.