What Is a Citizen Ballot Measure?

The term "citizen ballot measure" describes citizen-initiated processes to amend state constitutions or city charters, to uphold or repeal a law passed by the state legislature (veto referendum), to propose state laws, to approve bond issues or tax proposals, or to start a recall election.

In the United States, the process of initiative and referendum allows residents of a state to vote directly or indirectly on state laws.

Citizen ballot measures can have different names, like ballot measures, initiatives, initiative measures, propositions, referendums, or affirmations.

These and many other issues went before voters in 2022 as citizen ballot measures:

  • Legalizing marijuana
  • Approving or restricting abortion
  • Voting-related policies, such as ranked-choice voting for election results and campaign finance reform
  • Changes to the state initiative process
  • Voter ID laws creating stricter ID requirements
  • Repealing language that allowed enslavement or servitude as a criminal punishment

How to Get a Measure on a Ballot

Typically, when discussing a citizen election ballot measure, we talk about direct initiatives when voter petitions result in a measure going on the ballot.

But there are also indirect initiative petitions in which an issue first goes to the legislature and only goes to the ballot if the legislature fails to enact it.

What States Have Ballot Measures?

Twenty-six states, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Massachusetts, South Dakota, and North Dakota, allow residents to petition to get "initiatives and referendums" on the statewide ballot for state elections by getting a certain number of signatures on a petition. Every state allows petitions for local matters.

Eighteen states allow citizens to amend their state constitution by collecting signatures on a petition. But, Illinois and Mississippi have placed so many restrictions on the process that no citizen initiatives have appeared on the ballot in those states for decades. In 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a medical marijuana initiative and voided, for the time being, the state's initiative process. It did so because, since the 2000 census, it has lacked the five congressional districts needed from which sponsors must gather signatures due to redistricting.

Nevada requires voters to vote for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments at two successive general elections.

In California and Colorado, residents can combine a constitutional amendment with a state statute related to a single subject in an initiative for voter approval.

Twenty-three states allow a veto referendum process at the state level. If enough people protest a new law so that a voter referendum gets onto the ballot, that law gets suspended until the vote.

Most states that allow a veto referendum are in the Western U.S. A veto referendum is the only citizen-initiated ballot measure allowed in Maryland and New Mexico.

Twenty-one states allow voters to propose state statutes (laws) through ballot initiatives. Nevada allows voters to "affirm" state statutes; that is, voters can petition for a ballot question asking voters to affirm an existing state law.

If voters approve the statute affirmation, the state legislature cannot amend it. If voters do not affirm it, lawmakers can amend or repeal it on a future ballot.

Getting Signatures on a Petition

The person collecting signatures for the initiative process is a "circulator." That can be a volunteer or a paid position, but getting enough signatures on a petition is harder if a state does not allow paid circulators.

Each state has different signature requirements, and each state can determine how people collect signatures. States may restrict:

  • Who can collect signatures
  • Where they can gather signatures
  • How they request signatures
  • How and how much to pay a paid circulator

State laws can make it quite challenging to collect signatures. For example, they may require:

  • A circulator wears a badge or identification
  • The petition has a stamp with wording that says the circulator gets paid
  • The circulator registers or files an affidavit with the state, a municipal office, or with police
  • The circulator attends training

States can also find themselves in court if they enact laws that make it too difficult for people to effectively petition for access to the ballot.

In the case of Meyer v. Grant, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Colorado's prohibition against using paid circulators (while limiting the time to gather signatures to only six months) impeded the rights of people to engage in political speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth amendments.

Petition Fraud

Those in favor of restrictions on paid circulators cite concerns about fraudulent signatures and the integrity of the election process.

After all, paid circulators have a financial incentive to maximize the number of signatures they get, regardless of whether they are valid.

Paid circulators are more likely to commit fraud, which can happen in two ways. Circulators can misrepresent the petition's purpose when seeking a signature or forge a signature on a petition.

Signers can also commit fraud by signing someone else's name to a petition to increase numbers. They could commit unintentional fraud by signing a petition more than once or when they are not a registered voter in the area where the law will be in effect. For example, a resident from another state could sign.

Certifying Petition Signatures

How do states determine if the signatures collected on a petition represent actual voters? Signatures must undergo a certification process based on voter registration to ensure enough valid signatures meet the minimum required to qualify the measure for the ballot.

The petition gets turned in by its proponents to the secretary of state's office, a city or county clerk, a county election official, or, in Alaska, to the lieutenant governor's office. (See this table identifying who certifies signatures in each state.)

These authorities must confirm each signature. Some states only certify a random sampling of signatures. This can still add up to hundreds of thousands of signatures. In that case, the office must hire and train temporary workers. The signature verification process can be lengthy, but it's essential for protecting voting rights.

Ballot Eligibility

After the state determines that there are enough valid signatures for a measure to go on the ballot, it must check the proposition or initiative to decide if it is actually eligible to go on the ballot.

During this process, opponents can sue to prevent it from going on the ballot. This can delay or derail a ballot initiative.

The proposed initiative goes on the ballot under election laws if it is eligible. Some states need more than a majority vote, such as two-thirds of the voters.

Local Citizen Ballot Initiatives

We've talked primarily about statewide ballot initiatives here. Most states allow local citizen ballot initiatives in local elections, but the rules and requirements are highly variable depending on the local government. See Ballotpedia for more information about local initiatives and referendums.

Getting or Fighting a Citizen Ballot Initiative

Before a citizen or citizen group moves forward with a petition to get an issue on the ballot, it's wise to get a legal review of the issue to ensure it's eligible. An election lawyer can review the proposal to find potential legal problems and opportunities for legal challenges.

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