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Initiative and referendum

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In U.S. politics, the terms initiative and referendum refer to processes that allow citizens of many states to vote directly on particular pieces of legislation.

An initiative process allows citizens to propose or initiate a statute or constitutional amendment. Citizens initiating such legislation are known as the measure's proponents.

The referendum process allows citizens to refer a statute passed by the legislature to the ballot so that voters can enact or repeal the measure. Once enough signatures are gathered on petitions, the law is usually stayed, or stopped from going into effect, until the voters have decided the question. Wyoming is the only state where a law passed by the legislature is not stayed when petition signatures mandate a referendum.

With the exception of Delaware, every U.S. state requires state constitutional amendments to be ratified by the people. (Delaware requires a two-thirds vote of the state legislature in two consecutive sessions.) These legislatively created ballot measures are commonly called referrals, legislative referrals or legislative referendum, to differentiate them from citizens putting a legislative enactment on the ballot in a referendum, or citizen referendum.

History and use

Because initiatives and referenda are examples of direct democracy, and were staple reforms of the Progressive Era, many advocates of limited, constitutional government have scorned these processes as promoting "mob rule" or leading to the tyranny of the majority. On the other hand, because these forms of ballot measures serve as alternatives to the enactments of elected representatives, and sometimes as a direct check on legislatures, this element of democracy finds increasing support across the political spectrum as a necessary part of the checks and balances of republican government. The rise of a near-permanent class of professional politicians, as has happened from the Progressive Era on, makes more salient these other Progressive Era reforms, including recall elections.

Initiatives and referenda face judicial review under the state and federal constitutions, if the measure is a statute. Moreover, even if the measure is a constitutional amendment, it faces federal review and is void should it be found to violate any citizen's rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Initiative and referendum rights are written into the state constitutions of several U.S. states, particularly those in the west. And a number of jurisdictions within states that lack statewide plebiscite rights have various forms of initiative, referendum, and recall.

The federal government of the United States of America has not formalized any of these rights.

The various kinds of initiatives and referenda are discussed at greater length in separate articles on Ballotpedia.

Types of ballot measures

See also