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When the People Decide

Author: Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy

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When the People Decide, a podcast from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, explores the promise — and sometimes peril — that ballot initiatives have brought to American democracy by telling the stories of people who have organized initiative campaigns across the country.

America’s founders were famously skeptical of direct democracy, citing fears of mob rule if people had too much power. Since then, however, the initiative and referendum process has emerged as one way that citizens in some states can vote directly on policy and join forces to bring issues they care about directly to their fellow voters.

When the People Decide is hosted and reported by Jenna Spinelle and produced by LWC Studios for the McCourtney Institute.
20 Episodes
In this reported series, Jenna Spinelle tells the stories of activists, legislators, academics, and average citizens who changed their cities, states, and the country by taking important issues directly to votes — like Medicaid expansion in Idaho, sentencing reform in California, and LGBTQ workplace protections in Ohio.  From The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, When the People Decide explores the pros and cons of this largely overlooked tool of government and its impact in the last half century. Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.
A campaign in Michigan to end partisan gerrymandering in 2018 is part of a legacy of ballot initiatives dating back to the 1800s. After becoming disillusioned with the results of the 2016 election, Katie Fahey took to Facebook to gauge the interest of grassroots mobilization amongst her colleagues, friends and family. Now the executive director of a nonpartisan voter reform organization, Fahey shares how the ballot initiative excited everyday people about becoming active in politics, including its 10,000 volunteers, and how they were inspired to make political changes in their communities. In this episode, host Jenna Spinelle explores the basics of the ballot initiative, the history of how it caught on in the United States, and the pros and cons that she will explore throughout the series.Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.ResourcesGiving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America  by Steven Piott.Katie Fahey's organization, The PeopleKatie Fahey on Twitter
America, fast forward

America, fast forward


From property taxes in the 1970s to immigration in the 1990s and the gig economy more recently, ballot initiative trends often begin in California.  The state's Three Strikes law was no exception.Enacted in California in 1994, with similar initiatives implemented in 22 other states that same year, Three Strikes was seen as necessary to ensure public safety and prevent violent crime. Since its inception, however, many criminal justice experts have debated whether the price tag of incarceration has been worth the taxpayer’s money—or if it’s preventing crime at all. In the years since the Three Strikes propositions have entered their way into the criminal justice system, many reforms and repeals have been established to mitigate the unintended consequences that the initiative and its nuances have since revealed. Jenna talks to those impacted by the Three Strikes Law and the advocates who are fighting against it, and breaks down just how much work, and money, goes into fueling, and fighting, such a powerful ballot initiative.Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.ResourcesThree Strikes Project at Stanford Law SchoolRepeal, Reinute, Reinvest California - Zakiya Prince's organizationState of Resistance by Manuel Pastor
Christian conservatives in Ohio used the ballot initiative in the 1990s to restrict protections for LGBTQ folks in the workplace. The community fought back—how else? With their own initiative. In 1992, when anti-gay legislation was sweeping the U.S., Citizens for Community Values, one of the most active Christian right organizations in Cincinnati, seized on the opportunity to propose their own discriminatory campaign, Equal Rights, Not Special Rights. As pro-LGBTQ lawyers, activists and advocates rallied across the city to repeal the initiative, they soon realized that they not only had to be well-versed in grassroots mobilization, they needed to nail the timing to be successful—and as always, having powerful allies always helps.  In this episode, Jenna Spinelle examines how this anti-LGBTQ ballot initiative gained momentum in the 1990’s, and analyzes the societal cues and shifting status quo that eventually made a repeal against the discrimination ban possible.Note: Roger Asterino, who you'll meet in this episode, responded to our request for an interview after production on this episode was finished. Jenna had an amazing conversation with him that we'll release as a bonus episode at the end of the season.Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.ResourcesKimberly Dugan's book: The Struggle Over Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Rights. Facing Off in Cincinnati.National LGBTQ Task ForceCincinnati Pride HistoryThe Buckeye Flame - Ohio's LGBTQ news source 
 In the early 1900s, birth records of children given up for adoption were sealed and confidential, an effort to shield mothers and children from the societal shame of being born out of wedlock. Fast forward to the advent of the Internet, and adopted adults used the power of the web to form online networks connecting the community, and as helpful as these support groups were, adoptees still lacked the legal protections to access their birth records. Groups like Bastard Nation helped its members navigate access to birth records, as well as fight the stigma of adoption altogether.  It was out of this radical group that the very intimate issue of adoption made its way to the ballot box, begging the question, what are the limits of making the personal, political? This episode explains how this initiative addressed the social stigma around adoption and addresses the longstanding debates around the power of ballot initiatives. Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.ResourcesBastard NationMeasurable Rights documentary by Paul Fornier/Storm Rock FilmsMeasure 58 online archiveAdoption Politics by E. Wayne Carp
For decades in Nebraska, people would gather in the parking lot of state prisons to tailgate executions of prisoners on death row. A new crop of state legislators decided to put a stop to the death penalty, but the state’s residents—and its governor—had other plans, and used a ballot initiative to achieve them. We often think of public policy as having the best interests of society, but given the chance, do individuals vote on what is valued in their communities, or their own personal beliefs?  Until now, we’ve explored how people have come together to make changes their lawmakers won’t, but in this episode, we explore another pivotal angle of ballot initiatives.Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.
The polarization that exists in U.S. politics has some voters questioning the integrity of our two-party system—whose interests are the politicians really representing? Ballot initiative organizers claim that they are building new coalitions that transcend party lines, and unite voters on their values, not their partisan affiliations. In doing so, they echo progressive reformers of the past, who created big changes and prompted observers to call their work part of an “invisible third party of reform.” Ballot initiatives that are largely popular with everyday citizens, like Medicaid expansion and voting rights restoration, but that are seen by politicians as too progressive for bipartisan support, are finally reaching voters at the ballot box.  In this episode,  we examine how the current era of political reformers ushers in alternatives to stalled legislation by going beyond party lines and bringing the issues straight to voters, and asking the question, what do ballot initiatives say about the kind of political system we want in the U.S.?Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.ResourcesFlorida Rights Restoration CoalitionReclaim IdahoLet My People Vote: The Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens by Desmond MeadeThe Age of Acrimony: How Americans  Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915  by Jon Grinspan
Many state leaders are fighting to restrict access to this tool of democracy—or get rid of ballot initiatives altogether. While challenges to voting rights in states across the country captured the news cycle throughout much of the last two years, those same forces also seek to make it more difficult to engage in direct democracy. With 12 states battling restrictive bills to limit citizen-led initiatives, the “democracy reform movement” is stepping up across the country to save them. If legislators are successful in making it harder for people to use ballot initiatives, will politics still be within reach of the everyday citizen? Follow along as these campaigns play out in Idaho and Missouri.Learn more about the podcast at and follow us on Twitter @PeopleDecidePod.ResourcesShow Me IntegrityThe Fairness ProjectDavid Daley's books Unrigged and Ratf*cked
Throughout the series, we’ve seen what can happen when major decisions are put to the will of the people. Initiatives are far from perfect, but will we miss them if they go away? This episode will explore whether ballot initiatives can withstand the challenges they’re up against, and some groups are looking to initiatives as a way to strengthen American democracy.Our guests this week are two bold thinkers about the future of direct democracy. John Matsusaka is the director of USC’s Initiative and Referendum Institute; Chris Melody Fields Figureredo is the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. They've studied initiative outcomes and seen how they can work on the ground, and offer their thoughts on where we go from here. This episode also covers comes of the common criticisms of ballot initiatives, which are important to consider in designing measures and campaigns that are truly democratic and serve the many, not the few. Or, as Figueredo put it, "love letters to our people."ResourcesFor the Many or the Few? The Initiative, Public Policy, and American Democracy by John MatsusakaLet the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge by John MatsusakaInitiatives Without Engagement: A Realistic Appraisal of Direct Democracy's Secondary Effects by Joshua Dyck and Ted Lascher.
The first season of When the People Decide has officially ended, but we have a few bonus episodes for you that we’ll be sharing over the next few weeks. This first is a conversation with Kelly Hall, Executive Director of The Fairness Project.We mentioned The Fairness Project briefly in episode 7. It is one of the organizations working to fight back against the war on the initiative. The Fairness Project also works with ballot initiative organizers across the country — Jenna Spinelle talked with Kelly about some of the issues they’re working on right now and some of the issues that could be heading to state and municipal ballots in the coming years.As we alluded to in episode 8, there are some hot button issues in the ballot measure arena right now and Kelly is at the forefront of it all. She comes to the role of Executive Director with a fierce passion for progress and over 15 years of experience making change in government, with the labor movement, and through winning ballot measure campaigns.  Kelly was the architect of The Fairness Project’s work expanding Medicaid in six states (soon to be seven!) and her passion for health policy has meant expansion of healthcare to over 830,000 people. Kelly worked on Capitol Hill during the drafting and passage of the Affordable Care Act, and then served in President Obama’s administration helping to implement the law. 
Why does American Democracy look the way it does today and how can we make it more responsive to the people it was formed to serve? Democracy Decoded,  a podcast by Campaign Legal Center, examines our government and discusses innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy. This episode focuses on on a recent election n Maine, where one of the holes in our campaign finance laws allowed a foreign government to funnel enormous sums of money into a ballot measure election — completely legally. Host Simone Leeper speaks with Richard Bennett, a Republican state senator from Maine; Kyle Bailey, Campaign Manager for Protect Maine Elections and a former state representative; and AaRon McKean, legal counsel for state and local reform at Campaign Legal Center.ResourcesProtect Maine Elections
In this bonus episode, we hear from Roger Asterino, a former Cincinnati city employee whose story was at the heart of the anti-LGBTQ ballot initiative in the 1990s. Roger shares the story of coming to terms with his sexuality in rural Ohio, the harassment he and others received from a coworker at the City of Cincinnati, how the Issue 3 ballot measure impacted his life and work, and his decision to leave Cincinnati for California in the years that followed the Issue 3 vote. We also discuss how Roger met Scott Knox, the Cincinnati attorney who represented him in the lawsuit against the city and was part of the campaign to overturn Issue 3 with another ballot initiative in 2004.If you missed the episode on Cincinnati's Issue 3 ballot initiative, check it out here. We're grateful to Roger for sharing his story with us and hope you find it as impactful as we did.
Season 2 coming soon!

Season 2 coming soon!


In the second season of this podcast all about how people engage with U.S. democracy, Jenna Spinelle zeroes in on hyperlocal efforts to increase participation in local government. She talks to the activists, city leaders, and academics doing everything from democracy lotteries to civic courses at city hall and the library–all aiming to empower residents to have a real, tangible say in what goes on in their communities. From The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, When the People Decide takes a close look at how we can really save democracy, starting with issues in our own backyards.New episodes start July 17! Follow the podcast at or on social media at peopledecidepod.
When Linda Harris began working at city hall in her hometown of Decatur, Georgia, she noticed that the relationship between local government leaders and their constituents was often tense, or nonexistent. City workers were used to residents interacting with them when they had a complaint, for example. She came up with an idea: a straightforward class open to anyone in Decatur to learn about how their city government worked.  Thus began Decatur 101, now a long-standing institution that even the mayor participated in. In this episode, we talk with Linda and Decatur 101 participants about why understanding how your government works, empowers you to begin advocating for changes you want to see in your community.
The United Nations calls participatory budgeting a best practice for a democratic government and the New York Times calls it “revolutionary civics in action." Participatory budgeting, or PB for short, deepens democracy, builds stronger communities, and creates a more equitable distribution of public resources. Around 7,000 cities worldwide do it, including some communities in the U.S. It involves residents actively deciding where their city’s money will be spent —everything from new community centers to improvements to neighborhood parks.This week, we explore this empowering governance tool with expert Hollie Russon Gilman, senior fellow at New America's political reform program and affiliate fellow at Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance and Andrew Holland, who brought PB to Durham, North Carolina. Hollie, Andrew, and others working on participatory budgeting believe that it can increase civic power and  lead to a more inclusive, equitable democracy. 
Librarians have spoken for years about “library faith,” the belief that public libraries are central to democracy because they contribute to an informed citizenry. Today, the idea is gaining even more traction, and even conservative crackdowns on what’s permitted in libraries reinforce the idea that they’re more than just “book warehouses” but centers for community engagement and representativeness. This week, hear from two librarians working to enhance the role libraries of libraries democracy and civic engagement. Shamichael Hallman explains how he brought his experience in tech and faith leadership to bear when he ran a branch of the Memphis Public Libraries, including bringing Civic Saturdays to his community, a program of Citizen University. And public policy advocate Nancy Kranich of Rutgers University shares the high hopes she has that libraries remain crucial institutions that allow us to engage with our government–and each other.
When public officials embark on efforts to incorporate more civic input in city decisions, they are often hamstrung by inefficient means that favor the loudest voices in a room. But more people want a say in their local government; they just need the right opportunity. For Petaluma, California, it was something called the "democracy lottery." In this episode, we explore what that is and the power that comes from letting the community deliberate in a public way. Hear from Petaluma's city manager and one of the residents who was part of the fairgrounds panel.
Some 2,500 newspapers have closed in the U.S since 2005, leaving entire communities without a source for local news, as well as with limited means to keep their government officials accountable. What if there was a way to fill the news desert, with an entirely new approach to informing the public? Host Jenna Spinelle discusses the relevance of civic information with Mike Rispoli of Free Press, and then uncovers how that can be put into practice with Richard Young, founder of CivicLex, a non-profit that is bridging the gap between news and news consumers in Kentucky.Read the Roadmap for Local News report
The final episode of the season takes a step back from individual democracy reforms to look at what it will take to create a healthy civic culture where power is shared across the community — rather than concentrated in the hands of a few stakeholders. Eric Liu believes this can happen and is working tirelessly to spread his idea of civic faith across the U.S.
If you enjoyed our episode on civic media, you'll want to check out this episode the podcast Local News Matters, which explores issues in local news and democracy. The show highlights the innovative work of local newsrooms and the crucial questions they face about their role in American democracy.This episode features an interview with Steve Waldman, the founder of Rebuild  Local News, a nonprofit focused on using public policy to support journalism. In this episode, Steve talks host Tim Reagan-Porter about the history of public policy as it relates to news, the perils of government involvement, the nuances of crafting policy that balances multiple goals and concerns, and the state of local news. Steve also reflects on his time at Report for America, shares reasons for optimism and offers advice for young journalists trying to balance careers and their mental health.Local News Matters podcastRebuild Local News
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