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What are Ballot Initiatives?

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What is a ballot initiative?

Ballot initiatives, also commonly known as ballot measures or referendums, are questions placed before voters on local or statewide ballots. The ballot initiative process gives people the ability to propose constitutional amendments or statutes (depending on the state) and collect signatures to place those proposals directly before voters.

Through ballot initiatives, a majority of voters tell the state or local government what the public wants to get done. Voters in red, blue, and purple states have used ballot initiatives to get issues on the ballot that elected officials refuse to take up so that we can pass laws that help our communities.

What is direct democracy?

The citizen-initiative process, also known as direct democracy, gives voters the power to directly propose and pass new laws by putting them up for a vote. 

Direct Democracy is the will of the people. No matter who we are or where we’re from, we all want the freedom to make decisions on important issues that impact our lives. Direct democracy is an essential tool for passing people-centered policies at the state and local level. Further, we believe direct democracy is a critical part of building an inclusive, participatory, and thriving democracy. It is a process that is truly by the people and for the people.

Which states have a citizen-initiated ballot initiative process?

25 out of the 50 states in the U.S. allow for citizen-initiated ballot measures.

StateConstitutional Amendments: An initiated constitutional amendment is a citizen-initiated ballot measure that directly amends a state’s constitution. State Statutes: Initiated state statutes are citizen-initiated ballot measures that amends state statute. Veto Referendum: Veto referendums are citizen-initiated ballot measures that ask voters whether to uphold or repeal a law that has already been enacted.
New Mexico
North Dakota
South Dakota

What types of ballot measures are there?

  • Citizen-Initiated Constitutional Amendments: Citizens propose to amend their state constitution and bring the proposal to voters to decide. Currently, 18 states allow citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, which can be direct or indirect. Direct initiatives go straight to voters, whereas indirect initiatives go to the state legislature before potentially appearing before voters.
  • Citizen-Initiated State Statutes: These citizen-led measures create state laws (statutes) rather than alter the state constitution. 21 states allow citizens to initiate state statutes, which can also be direct or indirect. While direct initiatives go straight to voters, an indirect initiated statute first goes to the state legislature — which has the power to enact the initiative without putting it before voters.
  • Legislatively-Referred Ballot Measures: State legislators or local lawmakers place these proposed measures on the ballot for voters to decide. Legislatures in each state have the power to refer measures to the ballot.
  • Veto Referendums: Veto referendums are citizen-initiated ballot measures that give voters the power to repeal or uphold an existing law. 23 states allow citizens to initiate veto referendums.

How does an initiative end up on the ballot?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways for initiatives to end up on the ballot:

  • Citizen-Initiated: Volunteers and/or paid canvassers can engage with their communities to collect the required number of individual petition signatures to qualify an initiative for a public vote. Each state has a different number of signatures required for an initiative to qualify for the ballot.
  • Legislatively-Referred: Measures can be referred to the ballot by state legislators.

How many signatures are needed for an initiative to get on the ballot?

To qualify an initiative for the ballot, a certain number of valid signatures must be collected by proponents. In 2024, the statewide signature requirements ranges from 15,582 for a proposed statute in North Dakota to 874,641 for a constitutional amendment in California.

The exact number of signatures varies by state and is based on either:

  1. The number of registered voters in the state
  2. The percentage of votes cast in the preceding election 
  3. Population 
  4. Geographic signature requirements

What policies or issue areas do ballot initiatives encompass?

Ballot measures encompass a wide range of issues and express positions across the political spectrum — everything from Medicaid expansion to marijuana legalization, public education funding, enshrining reproductive freedom in state constitutions, increasing the minimum wage, removing slavery and involuntary servitude from state constitutions, bail reform, early voting and same-day registration, and much more.

How does BISC leverage ballot measures to strengthen democracy?

BISC is a national, progressive infrastructure organization and the only one working across the many policy, organizing, and political organizations — with local, state, and national players —  to defend direct democracy and analyze and support the ballot measure landscape.

We know direct democracy can be a tool for liberation. BISC leverages ballot measures across the United States as part of a larger movement to strengthen democracy, center people of color, queer, low-income, immigrant, indigenous and other marginalized communities, move towards racial equity, build and transform power, and galvanize a new progressive base.

We lead by supporting the use of ballot measures as a tool for transformational impact, not just in a measure’s outcomes, but at every stage of the ballot measure process—from policy development, signature gathering, civic engagement, the campaign itself, implementation and beyond. We believe in movement building and empowerment, bringing communities into the work and leaving lasting infrastructure for continued social change.

Why have there been increasing attacks against the ballot initiative process?

In recent years, some politicians and special interest groups with their own agendas have been subverting the will of the people by refusing to implement voter-approved initiatives and introducing hundreds of bills to make it harder to propose and pass new laws through citizen initiatives. 

These efforts have been increasing since the 2016 election in response to progressive wins and people-powered democracy at the ballot box. In 2021 alone, BISC tracked more than 146 bills to attack the ballot measure process across 33 states. This is a direct result of bold, progressives policies succeeding at the ballot. That is why BISC launched our Defend Direct Democracy campaign in 2021 – to protect the will of the people.

How can I join the movement to defend direct democracy?

Keep up with our campaign and help us spread the word by using the hashtag #DefendDirectDemocracy and following @BallotStrategy on our socials: Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn!