Ballot Initiatives: A Hands-On Approach to Government

Posted September 2008

In 1863, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address which summarized the concept of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty is commonly defined as the belief that a government receives its power through the consent of its people. The drafters of the Constitution valued a government run by the people in order to ensure that every voice was heard.

Direct democracy, the idea that sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate, has been a part of American history since the 1600s and has its roots within the ideals of popular sovereignty. Today, direct democracy plays a large part in politics on the state and local levels, due to its rise in popularity during the Populist movement at the turn of the 20th century.

The Populists implemented three forms of direct democracy as vehicles for their reform movements: referenda, a proposition that is placed on a ballot; recalls, a way to remove an elected official from office before the end of their term; and ballot initiatives, also known as ballot measures. Through the initiative process, a specified number of voters may petition to invoke a popular vote on a proposed law or an amendment to a constitution. This is a popular strategy when proponents of the issue are facing a difficult time in the legislature. The focus of this article is to clarify how the ballot initiative process is used to effectuate change.

There are two categories of initiatives, direct and indirect. Through a direct initiative, a proposal supported by a required number of voters is submitted to a popular vote for decision. This is accomplished by placing the proposal directly on the ballot. The indirect initiative process is when the proposal is submitted to the legislature before being placed on the ballot.

Currently 24 states allow the initiative process. The guidelines for executing a ballot initiative vary in each state. However, the general process for beginning the process is similar. The following is a general overview of the initiative process:

  • Determine the ballot initiative guidelines in the relevant state;
  • Write out the proposal;
  • Obtain the necessary consent from a public official to circulate the proposal;
  • Once the proposal has been approved for distribution, a required number of signatures must be obtained by a specific deadline set by each state in order for the initiative to be placed on the ballot;
  • After the completed petitions have been submitted, the proposal will be reviewed by the secretary of state, attorney general, or a legislative council and will be attached to the ballot;
  • Once an initiative has been placed on the ballot, it must gain a majority of the vote in order to become law.

It is important to remember that although an initiative may be on the ballot, the public must be informed as to its existence and why it is a necessary change. Often, candidates support or endorse certain initiatives, making it more likely that it will survive a popular vote.

Direct democracy, and more importantly, the initiative process, helps to put significant pieces of legislation into the hands of ordinary citizens, whose lives will be most affected.