In the United States, How do I get an Initiative on the Ballot?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The initiative and referendum system is part of the American legal landscape in 24 states. In these states, citizens may write initiatives to amend the state Constitution or propose new statutes, and in some cases repeal laws with referendums. In the case of either an initiative or a referendum, the voting public decides on the outcome of the proposal during an election. In each state which allows citizens to put initiatives on the ballot, the process is slightly different, but the basics remain the same.

Alaska is one state that allows residents to get an initiative on the ballot.
Alaska is one state that allows residents to get an initiative on the ballot.

Currently, Nevada, California, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Maine, Massachusetts, Alaska, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Michigan, and Ohio allow voters to submit initiatives to the state ballot. Florida and Mississippi only allow amendments to the state constitution. Three more states, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Maryland, permit popular referendums, but not initiatives.

Florida allows voters to submit initiatives to the state ballot.
Florida allows voters to submit initiatives to the state ballot.

The first step in getting an initiative on the ballot is writing the text of the proposed initiative. Typically, a lawyer or team or lawyers performs this part of the task, to ensure that the text will be legal, clear, and enforceable. After the text of the initiative is written, it is submitted to a state official for review. This is usually the State Attorney General or the Secretary of State, and he or she writes an official title and summary for the initiative after reviewing it.

Voters can submit initiatives to the state ballot in Utah.
Voters can submit initiatives to the state ballot in Utah.

Once the initiative has been reviewed by the state, the group organizing it can start to gather signatures. The number of signature needed depends on voter turnout in the last major election. In most states, amendments to the state constitution require petition signatures by eight percent of the voters registered in the state, and new laws require between five and six percent. The signatures must be valid, as many states check the signatures against a list of voters registered in the state.

Voters in Missouri can submit state ballot initiatives.
Voters in Missouri can submit state ballot initiatives.

The state gives the group organizing the petition a deadline for filing. If the group collects enough signatures in time, the initiative or referendum will be placed on the ballot, and voters can decide on it. In the both cases, the paperwork must be completed and filed well before the election, to ensure that it will be included on the ballot.

An initiative can be suggested at any time, because it is a modification of the laws of the state. Paperwork on a referendum, on the other hand, must be filed within 90 days of the passage of the law in question. Voters cannot retroactively decide that they disapprove of the laws of their state, but they can act to strike down laws which they think are unconstitutional or unreasonable.

Oregon allows voters to submit initiatives to the state ballot.
Oregon allows voters to submit initiatives to the state ballot.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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