New research demystifies local ballot measures

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February 14, 2013

By Lauren Warden Rodgers

MADISON, Wisconsin: Learning how to reform your local government has never been easier. The latest project launched by the writers and researchers at Ballotpedia delves into the laws that govern the local ballot initiative process in each of the 50 states. This research is a complement to the booklet published by the Lucy Burns Institute in late 2012: Local Ballot Initiatives: How citizens change laws with clipboards, conversations, and campaigns.

Fewer than half of the nation's states allow statewide initiatives, but 48 states permit at least a limited type of local ballot measure -- only Indiana and Wyoming do not have any jurisdictions that offer citizens some form of binding initiative and referendum at the local level.

All of the research is available online in an easily digestible format. The main project page explains the types, organization, and authority of local governments, and goes into great detail explaining the initiative and referendum and petitioning processes. Linked from that main page, each state has a separate page explaining the structure and different types of local government, identifying which types of initiatives processes (if any) are available, and providing a detailed description of the initiative process, replete with citations to the governing statutes or constitutional provisions.

The questions answered by the research on these pages include:

  • How many signatures are required to qualify a local measure on the ballot?
  • What is the circulation period restrictions for obtaining signatures?
  • When will an election be held for a qualified measure?
  • Are there any subject restrictions on what types of laws can be addressed via the ballot measure?

Each page also provides population data, city type, and the date of the next local election for the ten most populated cities in the state, along with individual city provisions that affect the local initiative process. Additionally, the pages detail the specific processes for the top 10 most populated cities in each state.

This research is the culmination of several months of work, but it is also just the beginning of what the staff at Ballotpedia hopes is a new interest in local government reform. Colin O'Keefe, the team's lead researcher on the project, explains "For grassroots organizations frustrated in their efforts to affect positive change in government at the federal or state level, the local initiative is a powerful tool for bringing that change closer to home. What this research does is identify the cities, towns, and counties in which the local ballot initiative is an option, and make it easier for people to navigate the somewhat murky laws that govern the entire process."

See also