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October 5, 2020

How state ballot initiatives play a key role in elections

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Directions: Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions below. If you would like to save time, you can STOP the video at the 7:50 mark to learn about the battle over the ballot initiative being discussed. For a transcript of the video, click here

Summary: This November, Californians will vote on Prop 22, a ballot initiative on the future of gig work for rideshare and delivery drivers for companies like Uber, Doordash and Lyft. While a new state law categorizes the workers as ‘employees,’ the companies, who have put over $181 million towards voting “YES” on the initiative, want them to be ‘independent contractors.’

  • Depending on how delivery and rideshare drivers are categorized, the companies that employ them may have different obligations regarding pay, benefits and other forms of compensation and worker protection.
  • Laws and regulations in California often have an impact on the ways companies operate across the country, because California is a large state and represents a significant part of the country’s consumer base. For instance, vehicle emissions regulations in California can affect manufacturing standards for car manufacturers.

Discussion: Have your students identify the 5Ws and an H:

  • Who is behind the new ballot initiative and who would be affected?
  • What is the difference between an ’employee’ and a ‘independent contract worker’? What is a ballot initiative?
  • When and where would this initiative affect workers?
  • Why is this new rule part of a ballot initiative and not a bill voted on by state lawmakers?
  • How do ballot initiatives work?

Then have students share with the class or through a Learning Management System (LMS).

Focus questions:

  1. Why do you think California voters (and not their elected lawmakers) are being asked to vote on this initiative?
  2. Who will benefit if the proposed initiative is passed? Who and what might the initiative cost if passed?
  3. Do you think the fate of the initiative will have an impact outside of California? Why or why not?

Media literacy: 

  1. Twenty-six states allow for ballot initiatives. Do you know how to find out what ballot initiatives exist in your state?
    • What media outlets provide information about the ballot in your state? Is this information easy or difficult to find?

Dig Deeper:

  1. Have students read this NewsHour story on the expanding role of gig work in our economy and answer the following questions. You may also want to have students explore this lesson on the gig economy and who profits from delivery during COVID-19 safety measures. 
  • Delivery drivers are one aspect of the gig economy in the U.S. What other gig economy jobs exist?
  • Do you think more of the whole U.S. economy will be based around ‘gig economy’ jobs in the future?
  • If a greater proportion of jobs are gig jobs that lack benefits or that pay a living wage, what will be the impact on American society as a whole? What problems that already exist might be exacerbated? What new problems might emerge? 

2. Use this resource from iCivics to learn more about ballot initiatives.

Note: You’ll need to register for a free iCivics account in order to access the lesson plan.

Voting for Laws: Referendums and Initiatives

Learning Objectives via iCivics. Students will be able to:

  • Explain how initiative, referendum, and recall are all opportunities for individuals and groups to initiate change in state and local government policy
  • Identify representation in federal, state and local offices.
  • Distinguish between different types of ballots.


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