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In the politics of the United States, initiative and referendum is a process that allows citizens of many U.S. states[1] to place new legislation on a popular ballot, or place laws recently passed by the legislature on the ballot, and vote on it.

Initiative and referendum, along with recall elections and popular primary elections, is one of the signature reforms of the Progressive Era.

It is written into several state constitutions, particularly in the West.



Main article: History of direct democracy in the United States

The Progressive Era was one of reforms aimed at breaking the concentrated, some would say monopoly, power of certain corporations and trusts. Many Progressives felt that state legislatures were part of this problem and that they were essentially "in the pocket" of certain wealthy interests. They sought a method to counter this – a way in which average persons could become directly involved in the political process. One of the methods they came up with was the initiative and referendum. Since 1904 till 2007 some 2231 statewide referenda initiated by citizens were held in the USA. 909 of these initiatives have been approved. Perhaps even greater is the number of such referenda called by state legislatures or mandatory - 600 compared to 311 civic initiatives in 2000-2007.

Types of initiatives and referendums

Laws regarding initiatives and referenda in the United States      Has both initiatives and referenda      Initiative constitutional amendments only      Referenda only      Has neither initiatives nor referenda

Initiatives and referendums—collectively known as "ballot measures," "propositions," or simply "questions"—differ from most legislation passed by representative democracies; ordinarily, an elected legislative body develops and passes laws. Initiatives and referendums, by contrast, allow citizens to vote directly on legislation.

In many U.S. states, ballot measures may originate by several different processes:[2]

  • Initiative, in which any citizen or organization may gather a predetermined number of signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot. (These may be further divided into constitutional amendments and statutory initiatives. Statutory initiatives typically require fewer signatures to qualify for the ballot.)
  • Popular Referendum, in which a predetermined number of signatures (typically lower than the number required for an initiative) qualifies a ballot measure repealing a specific act of the legislature.
  • Legislative referral (aka "legislative referendum"), in which the legislature puts proposed legislation up for popular vote (either voluntarily or, in the case of a constitutional amendment, as a necessary part of the procedure.)

Objections to the system

The initiative and referenda process has critics. Some argue that initiatives and referenda undermine representative government by circumventing the elected representatives of the people and allowing the people to directly make policy: they fear excessive majoritarianism (tyranny of the majority) as a result, believing that minority groups may be harmed.[3][4][5]

Other criticisms are that initiatives result in provisions being added to constitutions that would be better subjects for the more flexible statutory law, which can be more easily revised to fit changing circumstances, and that they clutter constitutions, which are supposed to be basic frameworks of government and not excessively detailed plans, with minutae, making them unwieldy. Many from both sides of the political spectrum further feel that lawmaking is best left to legislators, who presumably have a deeper interest in and more than a passing familiarity with issues and are best equipped to deal with them, a position which strikes "I & R" supporters as both anti-democratic and elitist. A further criticism is that an excessive number of propositions makes ballots too long and too incomprehensible to voters with only an average or less interest in the process and makes the entire voting procedure take too long, with very long lines forming as voters attempt to read initiative after carefully-worded initiative. In response to this criticism, some jurisdictions place a limit on the number of initiatives which can be submitted to the voters at any one election. The metropolitan charter of Nashville, Tennessee, for example, limits the number of voter-sponsored initiatives which may be considered in any one election to two, a rather extreme example, but many other jurisdictions which have "I & R" as a part of their government have taken similar steps to limit it.

Other criticisms are that competing initiatives with conflicting provisions can create legal difficulties when both pass;[6] and that when the initiatives are proposed before the end of the legislative session, the legislature can make statutory changes that weaken the case for passing the initiative.[7] Yet another criticism is that as the number of required signatures has risen in tandem with populations, "initiatives have moved away from empowering the average citizen" and toward becoming a tool for well-heeled special interests to advance their agendas.[8] John Diaz writes:[9]

There is no big secret to the formula for manipulating California's initiative process. Find a billionaire benefactor with the ideological motivation or crass self-interest to spend the $1-million plus to get something on the ballot with mercenary signature gatherers. Stretch as far as required to link it to the issue of the ages (this is for the children, Prop. 3) or the cause of the day (this is about energy independence and renewable resources, Props. 7 and 10). If it's a tough sell on the facts, give it a sympathetic face and name such as "Marsy's Law" (Prop. 9, victims' rights and parole) or "Sarah's Law" (Prop. 4, parental notification on abortion). Prepare to spend a bundle on soft-focus television advertising and hope voters don't notice the fine print or the independent analyses of good-government groups or newspaper editorial boards...Today, the initiative process is no longer the antidote to special interests and the moneyed class; it is their vehicle of choice to attempt to get their way without having to endure the scrutiny and compromise of the legislative process.

In some cases, voters have passed initiatives that were subsequently repealed or drastically changed by the legislature. For instance, legislation passed by the voters as an Arizonan medical cannabis initiative was subsequently gutted by the Arizona legislature.[10] To prevent such occurrences, initiatives are sometimes used to amend the state constitution and thus prevent the legislature from changing it without sending a referendum to the voters; however, this produces the problems of inflexibility mentioned above. Accordingly, some states are seeking a middle route. For example, Colorado's Referendum O would require a two-thirds vote for the legislature to change statutes passed by the voters through initiatives, until five years after such passage. This would allow the legislature to easily make uncontroversial changes.[11]

An objection not so much to the initiative concept, but to its present implementations, is that signature challenges are becoming a political tool, with state officials and opposing groups litigating the process, rather than simply taking the issue fight to voters.[12] Signatures can be declared void based on technical omissions, and initiatives can be thrown out based on statistical samplings of signatures. Supporters lacking necessary funds to sustain legal battles can find their initiative taken off the ballot.

Proposed reforms

Some proposed reforms include paying signature-gatherers by the hour, rather than by the signature (to reduce incentives for fraud) and increasing transparency by requiring major financial backers of initiatives to be disclosed to potential signatories. Other proposals include having a "cooling-off" period after an initiative qualifies, in which the legislature can obviate the need for the initiative by passing identical legislation, or an alternative version acceptable to the initiative's sponsors.[13] It has also been proposed that proxy voting be combined with initiative and referendum to form a hybrid of direct democracy and representative democracy.[14]


Citizens' Initiative Review

Healthy Democracy Oregon, and a similar organization in Washington State, propose a Citizens' Initiative Review process. This brings together a representative cross-section of voters as a citizens' jury to question and hear from advocates and experts regarding a ballot measure; then deliberate and reflect together to come up with statements that support and/or oppose the measure. The state would organize such a review of each ballot measure, and include the panelists' statements in the voters' pamphlet. Healthy Democracy Oregon organized a trial run of the process in September, 2008, on a measure on the November ballot. '"It was exhausting, but it was exciting to have a group of people with hugely diverse backgrounds and experience listening carefully to both sides and all respectful to one another," said Lorene Wallick'[15][16]

See also


  1. ^ State by state listing of where initiatives and referenda are used
  2. ^ What is I&R?
  3. ^ Gamble, Barbara S. 1997. "Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote." American Journal of Political Science 91: 245-269.
  4. ^ Hajnal, Zoltan, Elisabeth R. Gerber, and Hugh Louch. 2002. "Minorities and Direct Legislation: Evidence from California Ballot Proposition Elections." Journal of Politics 64: 154-177.
  5. ^ Gray, Virginia & Russell L. Hanson. Politics in the American States. 9 ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008. p. 141.
  6. ^ Was the Price Too High for Colorado Initiative Deal? -
  7. ^
  8. ^ Vote NO on Prop 105 » In The News
  9. ^ A long way from the grassroots
  10. ^ Medical Use of Marijuana To Stay Illegal in Arizona -
  11. ^ The Pueblo Chieftain Online :: Referendum O limits constitutional changes
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Betsy Hammond, , "Citizen panel: Reject limit on bilingual education", The Oregonian, September 26, 2008
  16. ^ "Reforming the Initiative Process", Think Out Loud, November 13, 2008


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