Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC)

Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC)


* Seeks to advance progressive policies by means of ballot initiatives in such areas as wealth redistribution, public spending, environmentalism, immigration, and abortion rights

Founded in 1999 by Amy Pritchard, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) seeks to “strengthe[n] democracy” and advance “a national progressive strategy” by means of ballot measures—i.e., state-level legislative proposals that pass successfully through a petition (“initiative”) process and are then voted upon by the public.[1] According to BISC, “[F]or decades, the initiative process has been hijacked by well-funded, well-messaged campaigns from the right wing, while progressives have played a weak defense that can—at best—maintain the status quo.” This arrangement, says BISC, has worked “to the detriment of working families, public education, women, the LGBT community, communities of color, immigrants and the poor.” To change the dynamic, BISC strives to “mov[e] from defense to offense by challenging our opponents at every turn.” It does this via three major programs:

1) Research: “To equip progressives with the best data possible, BISC conducts in-depth, multi-state research” to help them “make better decisions about messaging, voter turnout, campaign tactics, spending and strategy.”

2) Campaign Support: Helping progressives “develo[p] smart campaign strategies in key states and foste[r] a collaborative approach to ballot measures,” BISC offers its partners tactical advice, training, technical assistance, and ongoing analysis of budgetary and messaging issues. Moreover, just as BISC works to get progressive initiatives placed on state ballots, so does it strive to keep off the ballots initiatives sponsored or supported by conservative or liberatarian organizations. Toward that end, BISC trains its operatives to carry out aggressive “blocking campaigns” wherein they publicly challenge the legality of signatures submitted on initiative petitions; yell and create disruption in an effort to intimidate potential petition signers; try to get petitioners expelled from public places by telling defamatory lies about them (e.g., that they are committing “identity theft” or other illegal acts); and file multiple, frivolous lawsuits designed to bankrupt petition campaigns with crushing legal fees.

3) Ballot-Measure Reform: Asserting that “ballot measures were initially intended as a check on corporations and unresponsive lawmakers,” BISC works to “expose abuses of the system and advance reforms that return direct democracy to its progressive roots.”

BISC focuses its efforts on 7 major issue areas:[_

1) Working Families_]( “In tough economic times, ballot measures are often used to target working families, silence our voices and carve out special exemptions for millionaires, billionaires and corporations…. We support ballot measures that promote a fair economy and oppose efforts to cut or privatize key public services.”[_

2) Equal Opportunity_]( “For years, ballot measures have been used to target underrepresented communities and discourage civic engagement.”[_

3) Critical Public Services_]( “Anti-tax extremists have long pushed ballot measures that hurt public schools, our police and fire departments, hospitals, health clinics, parks and more by making it nearly impossible for state and local governments to raise revenue.”[_

4) LGBT Equality_]( “All too often, ballot measures are used to strip rights and target underrepresented communities. The LGBT community has experienced many high-profile attacks on marriage equality, job protections and personal freedoms…. We are committed to advancing LGBT rights and defending against political attacks.”[_

5) Reproductive Justice_]( BISC opposes ballot measures that seek to place any restrictions at all on abortion rights.[_

6) Immigrant Rights_]( Advocating “comprehensive reform” of America’s immigration system (i.e., legalization and a path-to-citizenship), BISC opposes ballot measures that are “used to target immigrants and strip away rights.”[_

7) Clean Energy and Environmental Protection_]( BISC is “committed to creating jobs in America by supporting clean-energy priorities”—i.e., increased reliance on solar and wind power, and a gradual dismantling of the oil and coal indistries.

In each of the foregoing areas, BISC uses ballot initiatives not only to “frame election issues” for the American public, but also to help “increase progressive [voter] turnout” on election day. BISC’s positions on these issues are rooted in the organization’s belief that: (a) social justice can best be achieved by means of a steeply progressive, redistributive tax system that funds safety-net welfare programs; (b) America is a nation rife with inequity against nonwhites, immigrants, women, homosexuals, and the poor; and (c) capitalism and industrialization wreak havoc on the natural environment.

Among BISC’s more noteworthy activities over the years were: its support for California Proposition 21) (2000), which toughened penalties for certain felonies committed by juvenile offenders; its support for a 2005 Redistricting Act) that sought to alter how Ohio state legislative districts were configured; its support in 2006 for “living wage” and increased-minimum-wage initiatives in six states; its opposition in 2006 to Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiatives in three states; its 2007 campaigns against a school-choice initiative in Utah and tax-cut proposals in Oregon and Washington; and its 2008 ad campaigns opposing the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative) and the Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative), both of which sought to end affirmative action (racial preferences) in public employment, education, and contracting.

BISC has long been fiercely critical of Ward Connerly, the former California Board of Regents member who successfully led the 1996 fight to pass Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in California’s public sector. BISC’s former executive director, Kristina Wilfore, characterized Connerly as a hypocritical “fraud” who was “no more than a pawn of the right-wing agenda.”

Over the years, BISC has had strong ties to a number of highly influential labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, the AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Association of Machinists, the National Education Association (NEA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the United Food and Commercial Workers.[

Other]( noteworthy allies of BISC include such entities as Change To Win, People For the American Way, and the Tides Foundation. The now-defunct community organization ACORN served as a “consultant” to BISC, and allied) itself with the latter in numerous ballot-initiative campaigns.

Since April 2010 BISC’s executive director has been Justine Sarver, who previously worked as political director of the San Diego Labor Council (affiliated with the AFL-CIO); organizing director of the ACLU of Northern California; vice president and political director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California; southwest regional director of Obama For America (which later evolved into Organizing For America and Organizing For Action) in 2008; and deputy chief of staff in the office of Kathleen Sebelius (President Barack Obama‘s Secretary of Health and Human Services).

BISC has received funding from numerous sources including the AFL-CIO, the AFSCME, the Arca Foundation, the Bauman Family Foundation, the California Teachers Association, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Casey Family Foundation, the Dallas Foundation, the Foundation to Promote Open Society, the McKay Foundation, NARAL, the NEA, George Soros‘s Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Scherman Foundation, and the SEIU.[2]


[1] As of early 2013, the initiative-and-referendum process existed in 24 U.S. states.
[2] Information on funders courtesy of the Foundation Center.

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