Climate falls off ballots as virus disrupts campaigns – ‘Climate-related ballot initiatives are having a quiet election year’

By Adam Aton, E&E News

Climate-related ballot initiatives are having a quiet election year.

The pandemic made signature gathering difficult and dangerous for activist groups that try to shape public policy by placing environmental initiatives in the hands of voters.

Some of those efforts were facing tough obstacles even before social distancing. The race for president and congressional contests have absorbed much of the energy that activists might apply to getting climate-related questions on ballots.

And with pandemic conditions likely to persist into the 2022 election cycle, creating climate policy through petitions and referenda could remain even more challenging than normal.

“Without a doubt, campaigns have been affected and have been forced to scramble,” said Amanda Zoch, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ elections and redistricting program.

Although some states have allowed flexibility with regard to ballot initiatives, those changes aren’t permanent. The pandemic opened the door to electronic signature gathering — the holy grail for petitioners — but it’s only been implemented in Massachusetts, by court order, for a limited number of petitions that were already circulating.

“It’s historic — it’s the first time electronic signatures have ever been allowed. But it might be the last time for the foreseeable future, too,” Zoch said.

About half as many initiatives are on track to appear on the ballot compared with recent presidential election years, according to NCSL and Ballotpedia, though some states haven’t yet passed their filing deadlines. Only 26 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to petition for initiatives to appear on the ballot. Legislatures can also propose ballot questions.

Few states have ballot measures related to the environment.

The most far-reaching of them — Nevada’s proposed constitutional amendment for a renewable portfolio standard — was already ratified by voters in 2018 and is up for second approval, per the Silver State’s Constitution.

But the stakes were lowered after the Democratic state government passed a law in 2019 codifying the proposed changes in statute.

The Nevada measure, which would require the state’s utilities to acquire 50% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, was one of several climate and environment measures up for a vote in 2018. Others included a carbon tax proposal in Washington state and a renewable portfolio standard in Arizona. Both failed.

Another unsuccessful measure in 2018 was a Colorado proposal to restrict hydraulic fracturing with strict setback requirements, which industry said amounted to a de facto ban. The measure failed with about 45% of the vote.

Colorado Rising, the group behind the 2018 measure, was planning to try again but dropped its effort in June, citing the difficulty of collecting signatures during a pandemic. But another green group, Safe and Healthy Colorado, said it would continue trying to collect signatures, according to Reuters.