Understanding the Ballot Initiative Process

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The ballot initiative, a form of direct democracy, is the process through which citizens exercise the power to place measures otherwise considered by state legislatures or local governments on statewide and local ballots for a public vote. Successful ballot initiatives can create, change or repeal state and local laws, or amend state constitutions and local charters. Ballot initiatives can also be used simply to force state or local legislative bodies to consider the subject of the initiative.

As of 2020, 24 states allowed for some form of ballot initiatives. Citizen-submitted initiatives should not be confused with legislative referrals, which appear on the ballot by a vote of state legislators. In keeping with the intent of Article I, Section 4, Clause 1, of the U.S. Constitution, there are no federal laws that regulate the state ballot initiative process and the process of getting an initiative on the ballot varies by state. While all states require citizens to gather signatures of registered voters to have an initiative placed on the ballot, the number of signatures, geographic distribution of signatures, and timeframe for the collection of signatures vary. Some states allow for both laws and constitutional amendments to be considered as ballot initiatives, others only allow for new laws or amendments to existing laws. 

The first documented approval for the use of the ballot initiative process by a state legislature appeared in the first constitution of Georgia, ratified in 1777.

 The State of Oregon recorded the first use of the modern ballot initiative process in 1902. A major feature of the American Progressive Era from the 1890s to 1920s, the use of ballot initiatives quickly spread to several other states.

The first attempt to gain the approval of the ballot initiative at the federal government level took place in 1907 when House Joint Resolution 44 was introduced by Rep. Elmer Fulton of Oklahoma. The resolution never came to a vote in the full House of Representatives, having failed to gain committee approval. Two similar resolutions introduced in 1977 were also unsuccessful.
According to the Initiative & Referendum Institute's Ballotwatch, a total of 2,314 ballot initiatives appeared on state ballots between 1904 and 2009, of which 942 (41%) were approved. The ballot initiative process is also commonly used at the county and city levels of government. There is no ballot initiative process at the national level. Adoption of a nationwide federal ballot initiative process would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Direct and Indirect Ballot Initiatives

Ballot initiatives may be either direct or indirect. In a direct ballot initiative, the proposed measure is placed directly on the ballot after being submitted by a certified petition. Under the less common indirect initiative, the proposed measure is placed on a ballot for a popular vote only if it has first been rejected by the state legislature. Laws specifying the number and qualifications of names required to place an initiative on a ballot vary from state-to-state.

Difference Between Ballot Initiatives and Referendums

The term "ballot initiative" should not be confused with "referendum," which is a measure referred to voters by a state legislature proposing that specific legislation may be approved or rejected by the legislature. Referendums may be either "binding" or "non-binding" referendums. In a binding referendum, the state legislature is forced by law to abide by the vote of the people. In a non-binding referendum, it is not. The terms "referendum," "proposition" and "ballot initiative" are often used interchangeably.

Examples of Ballot Initiatives

Some notable examples of ballot initiatives voted on in the November 2010 midterm elections included:

  • Washington State Initiative 1098 would impose a first-ever state income tax, initially on individuals with incomes above $200,000 but later possibly extend to other groups at the legislature's discretion. This action would remove Washington from the list of nine states without a state income tax.
  • California's Proposition 23 would suspend enforcement of the sweeping California Global Warming Act and all laws related to it until the state's unemployment rate eases and becomes stable.
  • A ballot initiative in Massachusetts would slash the state's sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, and repeal in most cases the state sales tax on alcoholic beverages.
  • California's Proposition 19 would legalize the possession, cultivation, and transportation of marijuana for the personal use of persons 21 years of age or older.
  • As a sign of opposition to the new federal health care reform law, voters in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma considered ballot initiatives affirming individuals' choices on purchasing insurance or participating in government plans.
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Longley, Robert. "Understanding the Ballot Initiative Process." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-ballot-initiative-process-3322046. Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). Understanding the Ballot Initiative Process. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ballot-initiative-process-3322046 Longley, Robert. "Understanding the Ballot Initiative Process." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ballot-initiative-process-3322046 (accessed June 1, 2023).