Hey Progressives! It’s Time We Return Ballot Measures to Their Progressive Roots.

July 10, 2013

We’re Losing.

For decades, conservatives have used ballot measures to push their broad agenda: starving public services, defunding and privatizing education, restricting access for women’s health, undermining voters’ rights, banning marriage equality, and gutting worker protections are just a few “successes” that conservative interests have achieved through their successful navigation of the ballot measure process over the past 40 years.

The truth is that ballot-measure campaigns affect everything progressives believe in and fight for. Yet, for forty years, we have been outpaced by a well-funded, well-coordinated effort to deny civil and human rights and roll back racial and economic justice in the 24 states that allow a ballot initiative process. And the hardest truth is that progressives have spent at least a billion dollars in the last five election cycles defending against ballot-measure attacks to protect an already insufficient status quo.

As we face this reality, we have two fundamental prerogatives: winning on the urgent defensive fights we face - i.e. preventing further erosion of the rights and liberties that ought to belong to everyone - while simultaneously holding the proactive space sacred, one where we develop, research, and advance our own big ballot initiative ideas.

The latter cannot be overstated: our communities desperately need meaningful issues to fight for – without them, we will continue to miss out on key opportunities to make important systemic change, grow our base, and frame the debate on significant issues facing the country. At Wellstone Action, we’re shifting from defense to offense and partnering with BISC - the only organization in the country that can change the game and reclaim the ballot measure process for the improvement of people’s lives.

A Time-Tested Triangle.

Whether it’s defeating bad ballot initiatives (voter ID in Minnesota) or pushing out and winning the good ones (marriage equality in Maine), the act of having voters – not elected officials - decide public policy –– is powerfully motivating for the progressive base. Or it can be, if it’s done right. As we saw in states from Washington to Florida, the opportunity to stand up for issues of justice, fairness, and equality, and to not only support these policies, but to move them forward ourselves, is an energizing, electric experience. Advancing progressive ballot measures builds, mobilizes, and energizes the progressive base – which can also propel into office those who will also stand on the right side of history.

And that’s the Wellstone Triangle in action. Grassroots organizing, electoral politics, and public policy are woven together to create progressive change and win on the issues that improve people’s lives. But today, progressives are cornered – out-resourced, and in many ways out-strategized - by conservatives who have also caught on to the power of the Triangle to advance their own agenda. So we’ve decided to fight back by doubling down on the Wellstone Way.

BISC + Wellstone Action = Winning.

Our vision is simple. And crucial. Together, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) and Wellstone Action will grow a new generation of progressive leaders that can effectively leverage ballot measures as a tool for civic engagement, meaningful policy change, and long-term movement-building. BISC, the only organization in the country that is successfully advancing a proactive, progressive strategy for ballot measures, and Wellstone Action, the largest training center for progressive candidates, campaigners, and organizers in the U.S., have joined up to take down the conservative advantage, one state at a time.

To win what is essentially a paradigm shift for our movement, to fully move progressives to a strategy of advancing good ballot measures instead of just stopping the bad ones, Wellstone Action and BISC are rolling out a first-of-its-kind training program focusing on ballot-measure campaigns, with an emphasis on how to get a good progressive idea on the ballot, how to hold ground throughout the ballot qualification process, and how to run and win a successful ballot measure campaign and strategically achieve victory on the ground.

Our History. Our Future.

For the last three years, Wellstone Action has been a collaborative partner with BISC, facilitating strategic planning conversations and creating tools for nonprofit organizations, coalitions, and state civic engagement tables to advance best practices on winning ballot initiatives.  BISC and Wellstone have brought the hard skills and organizing savvy to organizational leaders and campaign staff across the country.  Says Justine Sarver, Executive Director of BISC:

“As BISC builds a national progressive strategy for ballot measures, we sought out a partner with the experience to help train campaign leaders across the country how to win – and strengthen our movement. There will always be defensive battles to fight, but we must also put forward our own positive, proactive ideas that will - as Paul Wellstone said - improve people's lives. Together, BISC and Wellstone Action bring the strategy and skills we need to reclaim ballot measures from the right and return them to their progressive roots.”

Our successful history of delivering intensive, facilitated power analysis, strategy, and plan development for clusters of organizations in ballot initiative states, along with our talent for aligning interest groups that have not necessarily worked together in the past, has set us up for seizing this particular moment to shift our national partners to embrace an offensive strategy. BISC is the ballot measure expert, equipping progressives with the best research and data and crafting collaborative, strategic approaches for success. And Wellstone wields the training expertise, bringing hard skills and values-based learning that increases the leadership and human capacity of those on the ground to implement these strategies – and win.

In the last several years, Wellstone Action and BISC have helped organizations assess their strengths and weaknesses; implement criteria for strategic initiatives development; embrace a planning framework that includes everything from political landscape analysis to pre-qualification work to public opinion research to campaign leadership development; and develop the critical skills needed (field, media, messaging, fundraising) to win their campaign.

Now, as we look ahead to the 2014 elections, we’re poised to launch a new initiative together – training the actual campaign managers and staff who will either move forward, or fight against, or both – the ballot measures we can expect to see next year, from a gun control initiative in Washington State, to marriage equality in Oregon, to Medicaid expansion in states like Montana. Through two intensive trainings, one this fall, and one next spring, we will equip serious campaign strategists with the training, research, skill set, and know-how to not only defeat the regressive ballot initiatives, but to move progressive change by introducing proactive measures to the ballot – and keeping them there.

“The people at Wellstone know what they're doing. That’s why BISC has partnered with Wellstone Action on trainings for several years, helping to raise the bar for campaigners and policy advocates across the country. The Wellstone team is serious about building skills and developing progressive leadership, but they approach this work with good humor and humanity. The Wellstone folks are pros and a secret weapon of the progressive movement.”

-Justine Sarver, Executive Director of BISC

Changing The Game

Together, Wellstone Action and BISC will return ballot measures to their progressive roots. By pivoting from defense to offense, igniting and exciting our base, and weaving in our time-tested strategy of making change, the Wellstone Way, we’ll make 2014 the year progressive leaders across the country reclaim the ballot initiative process to advance the world where, as Paul Wellstone said, “we all do better when we all do better.” And we hope you’ll join us.