Is your state more progressive than your legislature?

Brief Overview

What is a ballot initiative?

Ballot initiatives are citizen-submitted proposals which are voted on by the full electorate during an election. They can do a range of things from impact budgets to create new laws to remove elected officials and in some states even change the state Constitution. Direct ballot initiatives go to a vote by the electorate (citizens who can vote in an election). Indirect ballots go to the legislature first, and then to the electorate for a vote if they aren’t taken up by the legislature. They may also be called proposals, ballot measures, referendum or initiatives, and may exist at the city or county level as well.

What is the process?

Every state has a different process for what and how to introduce and move an initiative, but the general process is:

  1. Submit an initiative with a state official
  2. The petition may get reviewed, which ranges from things like consistency in format to actually helping improve the measure.
  3. Preparing a title and summary
  4. Getting a required number of signatures of supporters (you know the people with clipboards in front of the grocery store?) by a specific date. Depending on the state, it can range from 2% – 15% of the resident population
  5. Submitting those signatures to be verified by state officials
  6. It goes on the ballot!

Does every State have a ballot process? (No)

States with some form of initiative process: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland (veto only), Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico (veto only), North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming.

In addition, many cities or counties may have ballot initiative options.

Is a Ballot initiative better than Going through the LEgislature?

That depends on the issue, capacity of your group, and timing. Some issues have very different levels of support in the electorate than they do in the legislature – abortion access and LGBTQ non-discrimination efforts often have huge voter support but stall when it comes to elected officials. That said, the people who might campaign against your ballot measure will still be around, and may have an outsized impact. When it comes to the time and effort available, both ballot and legislative change are lifts, but in different ways. Legislation can take lots of directed meetings that are substantively heavy, and lots of time spent with different offices and staffers. Ballot initiatives may not require that, but collecting thousands of signatures and direct campaigning to get out the vote are intensive efforts and require different kinds of volunteers making different types of efforts. Picking the right time might also be tricky – different voters turn out in General elections versus midterms, which will impact your initiative. Consider what else might be on the ballot and who would be most likely to show up at the polls.

Where to Learn More

Different organizations work exclusively on democracy issues and have information, including state-specific information and recommendations.

Ballotopedia: Encyclopedia of information on democracy, government and elections.

Ballot Initiative Strategy Center: This exciting organization offers a ton of useful information including analyzing the landscape, offering trainings, and providing significant research. There is a resource hub which requires a request for login.

National Conference on State Legislatures: Focused exclusively on different state legislative bodies, including supporting states in dealing with the federal government.

Case Studies

Prop K: San Francisco pushes decrim

Sadie Lune poses as Uncle Sam on a Yes on Prop K Poster.

In 2008, sex workers in California attempted to pass a city-wide initiative to decriminalize sex work. While the measure would not have overturned the California state law on prostitutions, it would have banned the city from using funds to investigate or prosecute prostitution. This strategy of divestment allowed investigations of exploitation and violence, but would have defunded the low level investigations. The measure did not pass but received 41% support, up from a similar 2004 effort in Berkley, CA which received 36% support.

View the Yes on K campaign website and materials.

Amendment 2: Florida Raises their minimum wage to $15/hour

Ms. Gail Rogers, a fast food worker at McDonalds, holds a sign after participating in a caravan to several area McDonalds restaurants to advocate for increasing the minimum wage to $15 by voting yes on amendment 2 in November, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Tampa.

In Nov 2020, the Florida for a Fair Wage campaign passed a ballot initiative which raised the state’s minimum wage from $8.26 to $15 an hour, staggered over five years in dollar increases until 2026. The campaign raised $6.27 million and had almost equivalent expenditures for this Amendment’s passage, including hiring a petitioning company to gather the necessary signatures. Major supporters included labor organizations and the League of Women Voters. Opposition was mostly business associations.

Read more, including a history of minimum wage efforts in Florida.