Dark background with purple, pink, and blue circles

What are Ballot Measures?

Sign up to receive our BISCquick newsletter – our weekly ballot measure roundup!

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 legislature 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 the legislature refuses 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.

What is the ballot initiative process by state?

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.
North Dakota
New Mexico
South Dakota

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 ballot initiatives: Volunteers and/or paid canvassers can knock on doors and speak with individuals in their communities to collect the required number of 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 ballot initiatives: Measures can be referred to the ballot by state lawmakers in the legislature.

What types of ballot measures are there?

  • Citizen-initiated constitutional amendments: A citizen-initiated ballot measure directly amends a state’s constitution. 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: Citizen-initiated ballot measures amend state statute rather than 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: Legislatively referred ballot measures appear before voters on a state or local ballot after being placed there by the state legislature or local lawmakers (rather than being proposed by residents). 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 uphold or repeal a law that has already been enacted. 23 states allow citizens to initiate veto referendums.

Which states have citizen-initiated ballot measure processes?

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



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 and verified by proponents seeking to put the initiative before voters. The exact number of signatures varies by state.

The number of required signatures 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

In 2022, the statewide signature requirements ranged from 15,582 in North Dakota to 997,139 in California.

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.

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.

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!