West Virginia: Bringing Initiative & Referendum Rights to the Mountain State

Mon, Mar 1 2010 by Anonymous

Steven Allen Adams of the West Virginia Watchdog - a project of the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia - and I talked yesterday about bringing ballot initiative and referendum rights to West Virginia (my home state). The first segment in a three-part on putting the voters in charge of the Mountain State is excerpted below:

If only there was a way to get elected leaders to follow the will of the people?

The answer to that question is simple: allow the people to propose and vote on state laws and constitutional amendments through the ballot initiative and referendum process (I&R).

In a report from the group Citizens in Charge, West Virginia received the grade of F for an almost complete lack of I&R except in a handful of municipalities. The report, titled “Of the People, By the People, For the People: A 2010 Report Card on Statewide Voter Initiative Rights,” graded all 50 states on the quality of their I&R programs. From the report:

This first annual report by Citizens in Charge Foundation finds that most of the 24 states with some form of statewide initiative rights received a grade no higher than a C. These states recognize varying levels of petitioning rights, and most place restrictions against those engaged in the process that lower their grade.

That leaves 26 states, including West Virginia, without a ballot initiative or referendum process. Citizens in Charge works to protect the initiative & referendum process in the states where it exists, and to expand the process to states currently lacking the initiative.

In a phone interview with West Virginia Watchdog on Sunday, Brandon Holmes, Grassroots Director for Citizens in Charge, explained the difference between a ballot initiative and referendum processes.

WV Watchdog: Tell our readers about what a ballot initiative is?

Holmes: “A ballot initiative is a process by which citizens can circulate a petition. They get a predetermined number of signatures on a petition. The process generally applies to any kind of law. The process can be used to both amend the state constitution as well as create statutory laws. If they get the predetermined amount of signatures that law will go on the ballot. The people of the state are then able to vote on that law, and if they get a simple majority it becomes law.”

WV Watchdog: If you would, please explain what a referendum is and what the differences are between a referendum and a ballot initiative?

Holmes: “A referendum is very similar and works along the same lines, only a referendum is held on an act that has been passed by the legislature. Generally there is a period at the end of the session whenever that act is passed when people are able to circulate petitions. There is usually a lower percentage required on a referendum petition than it is to initiate a law or a constitutional amendment. It’s basically the same process.”

“The referendum process is something that goes along with statutory and constitutional amendment initiatives to make it so the people can make laws and initiate laws as they see fit and when the legislature does something that they don’t agree with. It’s not something that is taken lightly, but you get to go back and put the breaks on something that the legislature has done which is totally out of line with the people.”

WV Watchdog: What are the benefits of having an I&R process?

Holmes: “The benefits are many. You’re putting the people more in power and able to get what they want out of representative government without doing away with representative government itself. You’re simply adding in that extra accountability mechanism, which is very powerful. States with I&R processes generally have low taxes, they have higher participation among the electorate and less voter apathy, and they also have a far great diversity of interest groups and activists within the state.”

“Because the legislature and the political class see that the people have this additional check they can put on them, they act with the knowledge that there is more scrutiny of the things that they do.”

WV Watchdog: With only 24 states with I&R processes, are there other states considering such programs?

Holmes: “With this modern interest of late – you have more people after government and the Tea Party movement and things of that nature – we’ve found that there has been a renewed interest in several states. We have definitely seen an upswing.”

According to Holmes, Pennsylvania, Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are looking into creating an I&R process. It should also be noted that in West Virginia, Senate Joint Resolution 10 would create an I&R process in the state constitution.