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What Is a Citizen Ballot Measure?

The term "citizen ballot measure" is used to describe 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 initiate a recall election.

The term "citizen ballot measure" is used to describe 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 initiate a recall election.

Citizen ballot measures can be called ballot measures, initiatives, propositions, referendums, or affirmations.

These and many other issues went before voters in 2012 as citizen ballot measures:

  • Legalizing marijuana
  • Approving same-sex marriage
  • Blocking or approving implementing of the Affordable Care Act
  • Allowing in-state tuition rates for unauthorized immigrant students who have graduated from a U.S. high school and now want to attend college (DREAM Act)
  • Allowing physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients at the end of life
  • Voter ID laws creating stricter ID requirements

How to Get a Measure on a Ballot

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

But there are also indirect initiatives 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-four (24) states allow citizens to petition to get "initiatives and referendums" on the statewide ballot by obtaining a certain number of citizen signatures on a petition. Every state allows for petition for local matters.

Eighteen (18) states allow citizens to amend their state constitution by collecting signatures on a petition. However, 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.

Nevada requires voters to vote twice on citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.

Twenty-five (25) states allow for 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 is suspended until it is voted upon.

The vast majority of states that allow a veto referendum are in the Western U.S. In Maryland and New Mexico, a veto referendum is the only citizen-initiated ballot measure allowed.

Twenty-two (22) states allow citizens 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 citizens to affirm an existing state law.

If voters approve the statute affirmation, the state legislature cannot amend it. If voters do not affirm it, that law can be amended or repealed on a future ballot.

Obtaining Signatures on a Petition

The person collecting signatures is called a "circulator." That can be a volunteer or a paid position, but some have observed that if a state does not allow for paid circulators, it can be harder to get enough signatures on a petition.

Each state can determine for itself how signatures must be collected. States may restrict:

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

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

  • A circulator wear a badge or identification
  • The petition be stamped with wording that identifies that the circulator is paid
  • The circulator register or file an affidavit with the state, a municipal office or with police
  • The circulator attend training

States can also find themselves in court if they enact laws that make it too difficult for citizens 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 the use of 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 those signatures are valid.

Paid circulators are somewhat more likely to engage in fraud, which can happen in two ways. Circulators can misrepresent the purpose of the petition when seeking a signature, or they can forge a signature on a petition.

Signers can also commit intentional 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 signing a petition when they are not a registered voter in the area where the petition will be in effect. For example, a resident from another state could be visiting.

Certifying Petition Signatures

How do states determine if the signatures collected on a petition represent real voters? Signatures must go through a certification process to ensure that there are enough valid signatures to meet the minimum required to qualify the measure for inclusion on the ballot.

The petition is turned in 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 is responsible for certifying signatures in each state.)

These authorities are responsible for seeing that each signature is validated. Some states only certify a random sampling of signatures. This can still add up to hundreds of thousands of signatures, in which case temporary workers will be to be hired and trained. The process of signature verification can be a lengthy one.

Ballot Eligibility

After it has been determined that there are enough valid signatures for a measure to be allowed on the ballot, the proposition or initiative must be evaluated to determine if it is actually eligible to be on the ballot.

While this is being considered, opponents can sue to prevent it from being placed on the ballot. This can delay or derail a ballot initiative.

If it is eligible, then the proposed initiative is put on the ballot.

Local Citizen Ballot Initiatives

We've talked primarily about statewide ballot initiatives here. Most states allow local citizen ballot initiatives, but the rules and requirements will be highly variable. 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 will be eligible. An election lawyer can review the proposal to identify potential legal problems and opportunities for legal challenges.

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