Updated October 11, 2010The ballot initiative, a form of direct democracy, is the process through which citizens exercise the power to place measures otherwise considered by state legislatures or local governments on statewide and local ballots for a public vote. Successful ballot initiatives can create, change or repeal state and local laws, or amend state constitutions and local charters. Ballot initiatives can also be used simply to force state or local legislative bodies to consider the subject of the initiative.
According to the Initiative & Referendum Institute's Ballotwatch, a total of 2,314 ballot initiatives appeared on state ballots between 1904 and 2009, of which 942 (41%) were approved. The ballot initiative process is also commonly used at the county and city levels of government. There is no ballot initiative process at the national level. Adoption of a nationwide federal ballot initiative process would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Direct and Indirect Ballot Initiatives
Ballot initiatives may be either direct or indirect initiatives. In a direct ballot initiative, the proposed measure is placed directly on the ballot after being submitted by a certified petition. Under the less common indirect initiative, the proposed measure is placed on a ballot for popular vote only if it has first been rejected by the state legislature. Laws specifying the number and qualifications of names required to place an initiative on a ballot vary from state-to-state.
Difference Between Ballot Initiatives and Referendums
The term "ballot initiative" should not be confused with "referendum," which is a measure referred to voters by a state legislature proposing that specific legislation be approved or rejected by the legislature. Referendums may be either "binding" or "non-binding" referendums. In a binding referendum, the state legislature is forced by law to abide by the vote of the people. In a non-binding referendum, it is not. The terms "referendum," "proposition" and "ballot initiative" are often used interchangeably.
Examples of Ballot Initiatives
Some notable examples of ballot initiatives from the November 2010 midterm elections include:
- Washington State Initiative 1098 would impose a first-ever state income tax, initially on individuals with incomes above $200,000 but later possibly extending to other groups at the legislature's discretion. This action would remove Washington from the list of nine states without a state income tax.
- California's Proposition 23 would suspend enforcement of the sweeping California Global Warming Act and all laws related to it until the state's unemployment rate eases and becomes stable.
- A ballot initiative in Massachusetts would slash the state's sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, and repeal in most cases the state sales tax on alcoholic beverages.
- California's Proposition 19 would legalize the possession, cultivation and transportation of marijuana for the personal use of persons 21 years of age or older.
- As a sign of opposition to the new federal health care reform law, voters in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma will consider ballot initiatives affirming individuals' choices on purchasing insurance or participating in government plans.