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.

There are three basic types of ballot measures: initiatives, referendums and recalls.

What is an initiative?

A ballot initiative is a proposal to change or create a law at a local or state level. Instead of relying on the legislature to make all of the laws, citizens can use the ballot initiative process to implement laws on their own.

Using the ballot initiative process, citizens can bring about a public vote on a proposed statue (link) or constitutional amendment (link) by gathering a pre-determined amount of signatures from registered voters and turning those signatures in to the state.

LEARN MORE: Do I have ballot initiative rights in my state?

What is a referendum?

A referendum places a law that has already been passed by the legislature to a popular vote. Similar to a ballot initiative, it is a citizen led effort and requires a predetermined amount of signatures to qualify the measure to get on the ballot. The legislature can also place a bill to a “legislative referendum.

LEARN MORE: Do I have the right to a referendum in my state?

What is a recall?

A recall is a process in which an elected official can be removed from office by the voters before his or her term expires. Similar to other measures, a specified number or percentage of signatures is required for a recall election.

LEARN MORE: Do I have the right to a recall election in my state?

Isn’t it the legislature’s job to make laws?

State legislatures do make most of our laws and that will most likely always be the case. However, when a legislature is unresponsive to the wishes of the people that elected them the people need the ability to act. Too often legislators are influenced more by well financed special interest groups and are not listening closely enough to the people that elected them. I&R provides citizens with a way to “right the ship” when legislators step out of line.

How many states have I&R?

Currently 24 states have some form of I&R.

Why doesn’t my state have I&R?

Most of the states that have I&R included the process in their state constitutions when the achieved statehood. Now to include I&R in a state constitution the state legislature must “refer” the idea to the voters. Some state legislators see I&R as a threat to their monopoly on power and are not willing to risk giving the people a vote.