Learn about the Initiative

Ballot Initiative Primer

Answers to frequently asked questions about ballot initiatives.

History of the Initiative

Background on our country’s long tradition of initiative and referendum.

Benefits of Initiatives

Why ballot initiatives are good for American politics.

Ballot Initiative Primer

What is a ballot measure?

Ballot measures, also referred to as ballot initiatives and referendums (I&R), provide citizens the opportunity to discuss and vote on policy issues at the local level and state level. Using this process, in 24 states citizens can bring an issue to a public vote by gathering a pre-determined number of signatures from registered voters.

Some common names for ballot measures include initiative and referendum (I&R), voter initiatives, propositions, citizen initiatives, or questions.

Benefits of Initiatives

Better Policy

Ballot initiatives allow citizens to enact meaningful policy changes that otherwise have little chance of being passed by politicians.

Legislator Competition

The initiative process helps hold government accountable to the people.

Higher Voter Turnout

Ballot initiatives and referendums create more interest, therefore higher voter turnout, in elections.

Better Policy

Ballot initiatives allow citizens to enact meaningful policy changes that otherwise have little chance of being passed by politicians.Just like legislators, voters can pass bad laws or fail to pass good ones. But historically, voters have a far better record.

Better Tax Policy

States where citizens enjoy initiative and referendum rights not only have lower taxes, they also have more tax and spending decisions made at the local level, rather than statewide. Furthermore, a recent study by scholars at Wellesley College says I&R states have significantly less government waste and better economic performance than do states without I&R.

Beating Big Money

People are far less swayed by money than politicians are. Multiple studies reveal that citizens tend to favor “grassroots” initiatives over “big money” initiatives, whereas legislatures usually vote on the side of big money. Special interests may be able to pay to play with elected officials, but it’s far more difficult to bribe a majority of the voters of a state. As just one example, that citizens of California enacted term limits despite being outspent by more than a 6 to 1 margin.

Higher Voter Turnout

Studies have consistently shown that entrusting citizens with the ballot initiative process results in more people voting.

Legislator Competition

Initiatives foster competition for legislators. Allowing citizens to challenge bad laws or introduce new laws puts a much-needed check on the monopoly power of state legislatures. In this way, the initiative helps hold government accountable to the people.

Petitioning Rights by State

States vary widely in whether initiative and referendum rights are recognized and to what extent. The chart below gives a more detailed picture of which states recognize the various petition processes. Click on your state for more details.

The History of the Initiative

Initiative and referendum has been part of our country since before the founding. Our founding fathers thought that the citizens’ right to petition their government was crucial to maintaining our liberty. Thomas Jefferson argued to have I&R included in the Virginia constitution in 1775. James Madison included a push for I&R in Federalist 49 when he stated:

Setting the Foundation

Initiative and referendum (I&R) has existed in some form in this country since the 1600s. Citizens of New England placed ordinances and other issues on the agenda for discussion and then a vote during town meetings. It is these town hall meetings that established the precedent for the legislative referendum process, whereby citizens are entrusted with ratifying laws and amendments proposed by elected officials.

The Populist and Progressive Era

The 1890s and early 1900s saw the establishment of the Populist and Progressive movements. Both were based on the people’s dissatisfaction with government and its inability to deal effectively in addressing the problems of the day. The supporters of both these movements had become especially outraged that moneyed special interest groups controlled government, and that the people had no ability to break this control. They soon began to propose a comprehensive platform of political reforms that included women’s suffrage, secret ballots, direct election of U.S.

The Modern Day Movement

In 1959, Alaska was allowed admittance into the Union with initiative and popular referendum in their founding constitution. In 1968, Wyoming voters adopted the process and in 1972 Floridians adopted the statewide initiative process. Mississippians in 1992 restored the initiative process to their constitution, 70 years after the state supreme court had invalidated the election that had established it. Mississippi became the newest and last state to get this valuable tool.

The Future of the Initiative

The credit for the establishment of the initiative process in this country belongs with the Populists and Progressives. They worked steadily to dismantle the political machines and bosses that controlled American politics by pushing reforms eliminating the influence the special interest had on political parties and the government. Their goal, as is today’s proponents of the initiative process, was to ensure that elected officials remain accountable to the electorate.

Current Ballot Initiatives

Measures on the ballot for November 2009

Maine -

Ohio -

Washington -

Threats and Restrictions

The Initiative process has been used throughout its history as a tool for the people to utilize to reign in government when it has become too powerful and when government refuses to deal with the issues supported by the people. Since the end result of most initiatives, especially those that reign in government, has been to limit the government’s power, elected officials have taken offense.

Circulation Periods

Petition sponsors need ample time to collect the tens of thousands of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. Short circulation periods hurt the ability of petition sponsors to make the ballot, and make it almost impossible for grassroots volunteer efforts to qualify. States should have ample circulation periods - at least nine months - to allow petition sponsors an opportunity to qualify for the ballot.

Different Voting Rules

Different voting schemes are used for legislation versus initiatives. In addition to placing additional qualifications on persons seeking to use the initiative process, several states have also imposed unique voting schemes on initiatives; thereby making it more difficult for the people to successfully enact their proposals.

Pay-Per-Signature Bans

Several states –including Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming – ban or restrict paying people who collect signatures on a ballot initiative, referendum or recall petition based on the number of signatures they collect. Payment-per-signature allows citizens greater certainty in judging the cost of a petition effort. Moreover, in states that have passed such bans, the cost of successfully completing a petition drive has risen considerably, sometimes more than doubling.

Registration Requirements for Petition Circulators

Registration requirements have been suggested in the legislatures of many states in recent years, making registration an up-and-coming threat to petitioning rights.

Residency Requirements

Residency requirements are one of the most frequently imposed restrictions on the initiative process. These laws require that someone circulating a petition for an initiative, referendum, or recall effort be a resident of the state, county, or locality that the petition is aimed at. Supporters of such requirements claim that they are needed to reduce fraud and insure that circulators can be found if signatures are challenged.

Distribution Requirements

A distribution requirement is a legislative or state constitutional mandate requiring that petitions for a ballot measure must be signed by voters from different political subdivisions – such as counties – in order for the ballot measure to qualify for the ballot. Distribution requirements have been struck down in five states, and are currently under legal challenge in three.