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Ballot measure

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Ballot Basics
Citizen initiatives
Indirect initiative
Legislative referrals
Citizen initiatives
Indirect initiative
Legislative referrals
Advisory question
Automatic ballot referral
Bond issue
Commission referred
Veto referendum
Measures by topic
Measures by year
Measures by state

Ballot measure is a broad, generic term used to describe questions or issues that appear on ballots where voters can approve or reject them. The map at the top of the page shows states where citizens have the power to propose amendments or statutes through initiative and referendum processes.

Ballot measures can be:

  • Local (covering a school district, city, county, or a special tax district)
  • Statewide.

Ballot measures can embody:

Paths to the ballot

See also: States with initiative or referendum

Ballot measures get on the ballot through very different paths. Initiative and referendum, often abbreviated as "I&R," is the catch-all phrase for ballot measures that get on ballots through a signature collection process of some kind.

Only about half of the American states allow their citizens to place a measure on the ballot through the collection of signatures.

However, every state has some mechanism through which measures of some kind can make their way onto the ballot of that state. This can include legislative referrals and constitutional amendment validation procedures, as well as bond issues or tax proposals placed before the state's voters by a vote of the state legislature.

In other words, a general election ballot in any American state might include ballot measures of one kind or another. However, only in half the states would any of those ballot measures be there courtesy of a petition drive.

Amending state constitutions

Legislative referrals

Main article: Legislatively-referred constitutional amendments

49 states have a law in place that allows citizens to vote on proposed constitutional amendments offered by the state legislature; the only state without such a law is Delaware.

The main ways that laws differ from state-to-state regarding the process of putting legislatively-referred constitutional amendments on the ballot are:

  • What percentage of the members of the state legislature have to affirmatively vote to put the measure on the ballot. It can be a simple majority vote or, in some states, a two-thirds vote.
  • How many times the state legislature has to vote to place the measure on the ballot. In most states, the legislature only has to affirmatively vote one time to do so, but in some states, the resolution to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot must be passed in two consecutive sessions of the state legislature.

Citizen initiatives

Main article: Initiated constitutional amendments

In 18 states, citizens can amend their state constitution through the process of collecting signatures on petitions.

Once the signatures are collected and have successfully survived the signature certification process in the state in question, the measure is then determined by one or more state offices to be eligible to appear on the ballot. There is usually a period of time between the determination that the measure is eligible for the ballot and the printing of the ballots. It is not uncommon for political opponents of the particular citizen initiative to sue the state's election officers or Secretary of State to demand that--for whatever reasons the opponents bring forward--the measure not be placed on the ballot. If any such legal challenges are unsuccessful, the ballots are printed, and it proceeds to a vote of the people.

In Nevada, a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment must be voted on twice, each time receiving a majority vote in favor, before it becomes part of the Nevada Constitution.

The eighteen states that allow constitutional amendments via the ballot initiative process are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota.

However, the laws governing the initiative process in Illinois and Mississippi are so restrictive that no initiated constitutional amendments have been on their statewide ballots in decades.

Commission referrals

Main article: Commission-referred constitutional amendment

One state, Florida, has two commissions which have the authority under the Florida Constitution to refer statewide measures to the ballot; they are the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission and the Constitution Revision Commission.

Constitutional conventions

Main article: Constitutional convention

In 39 states, constitutional conventions have the authority to refer proposed constitutional amendments to the statewide ballot. The process by which a constitutional convention can be called differs in those 39 states; however, once a convention is called, in each of the 39 states, the delegates to such a convention have the right to refer any proposed amendments they come up with to the state's voters for ratification or rejection.

These states do not currently allow for a constitutional convention process:

The veto, or citizen referendum

Main article: Veto referendum

In the case of a veto referendum--which is sometimes also called a citizen referendum or a statute referendum--a state legislature passes a bill. People who oppose that new bill (or statute) then may--if they live in a state that allows this--collect enough signatures to force the measure to a vote of the people. Groups who oppose a new bill would be motivated to go to the trouble of a petition drive to collect the needed valid signatures if they believe that the state's voters would reject a piece of legislation that the state's legislators approved; or, in other words, if they believe the state legislature is out-of-step with the will of the people in the matter at hand.

25 states have a veto referendum mechanism in place.

State statutes on the ballot

Legislative referrals

Main article: Legislatively-referred state statute

In the case of a legislative referral, in states that allow this, the state legislature may not wish--or the votes may not exist--to directly pass a new bill. However, there may be enough votes in the legislature to order that the measure to placed before the people as a ballot measure. If a special interest group that supports a controversial ballot measure has enough support in the state legislature to persuade the legislature to put the measure to a vote of the people, the proponents can avoid the considerable expense of a petition drive. Legislative referrals thus start out in life with the advantage of not having to spend their campaign treasury on a petition drive.

Citizen statutes

Main article: Initiated state statutes

22 states allow citizens to proposed new state statutes via the ballot initiative process.

Commission referrals

Main article: Commission-referred ballot measure

One state, Arizona, has a commission, the Arizona Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers, which can refer a statewide question to the ballot regarding salaries of Arizona politicians.

Statute affirmation

One state, Nevada, has a form of citizen-initiated direct democracy known as the statute affirmation.

In the process of statute affirmation, voters collect signatures in order to place on their ballot a question asking the citizens of the state to affirm a standing state law.

If a majority of voters do affirm the law, the state legislature is then barred from ever amending it. However, the citizens of the state may themselves amend or repeal the law in the future through a direct vote of the people.[2]

Bond issues and tax proposals

In some states, the state legislature is not allowed to pass new taxes or spending increases beyond a certain level without putting the tax increase or spending increase to a vote of the people. Where that is the case, as in Maine, the state legislature votes to place a Bond issue or tax proposal before the voters.

Statewide bond propositions (California)

Types of ballot measures

Other types of ballot measures that appear in multiple states are:

Some related terms:

State-specific terminology

Number of statewide ballot measures

Year States Statutes Amendments Initiatives Veto referenda Referrals Total
2008 - 174
2007 - 43
2006 - 226
2005 - 45
2004 - 162
2003 - 67
2002 - 223
2001 - 39
2000 - 204
1999 - 71
1998 - 254
1997 - 37
1996 - 266
1995 - 32
1994 - 170
1993 - 44
1992 - 169
1991 5 14 21 6 - 28 34
1989 5 4 6 4 - 6 10

See also

Lists of ballot measures