An excellent article from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center outlines some of the thinking that should be employed before proposing a ballot initiative. This includes ensuring that it is clearly framed and compelling to voters, and, critically, is it winnable, because if it is just ‘fighting the good fight’ then a ballot loss can concretize the opposing sentiment and set your cause back.
What even is a Ballot Initiative?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Ballot initiatives, we want to break down the basics for you. A ballot is a system of voting secretly and in writing on a particular issue and a ballot initiative is a means by which a petition signed by a certain number of registered voters can bring about a public vote on a proposed statute or constitutional amendment.
For the record, a Ballot initiative and Referendum are not the same thing..
A Referendum typically refers to when the power is in the hands of the electorate to either accept or reject a proposal to an existing legislation through an election called for this purpose. A Referendum can be initiated by the legislature also as when a measure is presented to the electorate for its approval. For example, changes in the state constitution require to be approved by the electorate before being put into effect.
By contrast, a Ballot initiative starts with votes, whereas legislative referendum initiates from the legislature and goes to the public, to approve or reject the proposed legislation.
In many ways, Ballot initiatives are a direct form of democracy and there are two types:
Direct initiatives: proposed measure is placed directly on a ballot after being submitted by a certified petition
Indirect initiatives: the proposed measures is placed on a ballot for a popular vote only if it has first been rejected by the state legislature.
Ironically, even though Ballot initiatives can be very powerful , they are never given the respect they deserve.
So what exactly does all this mean?
As it stands twenty-four states allow Ballot initiatives, which are a form of direct democracy
No two states have exactly the same requirements for qualifying initiatives to be placed on the ballot. Generally, however, the process includes these steps:
(1) preliminary filing of a proposed petition with a designated state official;
(2) review of the petition for conformance with statutory requirements and, in several states, a review of the language of the proposal;
(3) preparation of a ballot title and summary;
(4) circulation of the petition to obtain the required number of signatures of registered voters, usually a percentage of the votes cast for a statewide office in the preceding general election; and
(5) submission of the petitions to the state elections official, who must verify the number of signatures.
If enough valid signatures are obtained, the question goes on the ballot or, in states with the indirect process, is sent to the legislature.
Voting on Initiatives
Once an initiative is on the ballot, the general requirement for passage is a majority vote. Exceptions include Nebraska, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. Those states require a majority, provided the votes cast on the initiative equal a percentage of the total votes cast in the election: 35 percent in Nebraska, 30 percent in Massachusetts and 40 percent in Mississippi.
In Wyoming, an initiative must receive a majority of the total votes cast in a general election. For example, in Wyoming's 1996 general election the votes cast totaled 215,844-so that an initiative would have had to receive at least l07,923 votes to be passed. In Nevada, initiatives amending the constitution must receive a majority vote in two consecutive general elections.