Understanding Ballot Measures and How to Launch Your Own Initiative


Woman sitting on floor working on laptop

Ballot measures have more of an impact on our day-to-day lives and community than our vote for the country’s President. And yet, too often we treat ballot measures like a quiz we forgot to study for. We show up at the polls ready to vote for the politicians who won us over. And then the deer-in-headlights moment comes when we see a few YES/NO questions on the ballot too, that we weren’t fully prepared to answer.

In this article we’ll discuss the different types of ballot measures, how you can get a ballot measure to appear on the ballot, and things to do and watch out for when researching and deciding how to vote on a ballot measure.

What Are Ballot Measures?

Ballot measures are questions that appear on election ballots. They allow voters to collectively decide laws and issues that will affect their state or local jurisdiction. Ballot measures are also called ballot questions, ballot initiatives, popular initiatives, voter initiatives, citizen initiatives, propositions, and referendums. (Source: Ballotpedia.org) Many of these terms refer to the different types of ballot measures, which are discussed more throughout this article.

Ballot measures are used to make changes to state constitutions, state statutes, city or county laws and other policies. They allow us to vote and make changes to things such as minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, family leave time, increased taxes, educational funds, employment classifications, marriage rights, etc. Ballot measures usually appear on election ballots as a single sentence, or a few sentences, and only require a Yes or No vote.

How To Find Which Ballot Measures Will Be On Your Ballot?

Most states and jurisdictions will allow you to request a sample ballot, or download one from their election board’s website so you can view and consider the ballot measures before you head to the polls to vote.

Several nonpartisan or nonprofit websites (such as BallotReady.org, Vote411.org, and VoteSmart.org) also provide summaries and background information about ballot measures. And the information is often made available months in advance of elections, giving ample time to thoroughly research pros and cons of each measure.

For example, as of May 2021, there are 22 statewide ballot measures in five states that have been certified for the 2021 ballot. (Source: Ballotpedia) Ballotpedia has a page on their website too, that lists these current ballot measures throughout the country that could appear on the ballot in 2021. In general, Ballotpedia is a great resource for learning about what’s on the ballot. It’s known as the “digital encyclopedia of American politics” and it strives to provide accurate and objective information about politics at all levels of government.

Each of the websites mentioned in this section are nice resources for learning about ballot measures that may affect your state and community. They provide brief overviews of potential present and past ballot measures including full text, arguments, explanation of support or opposition, and background information on what you can do to ensure their success or failure.


Examples of Ballot Measures That Received High Publicity

Check out these ballot measure examples below to get an idea of how important issues that affect our everyday lives are presented on the ballot and given to voters to decide.

1. California: Proposition 22, App-Based Drivers as Contractors and Labor Policies Initiative

Ridesharing and delivery through companies like Uber, Lyft and Doordash, are commonly-used transportation services. On the November 2020 ballot, California voters got to decide how rideshare drivers should be classified. An initiated state statute ballot measure asked voters whether app-based drivers should be considered independent contractors or employees. The result would determine whether app-based drivers would be covered by state employment labor laws. Approximately 59% of voters approved the initiative to deem these drivers as independent contractors who would not receive state labor law protections. (Source: VoteSmart.org)

2. Massachusetts: Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Veto Referendum

Massachusetts’ legislature passed a law in 2016, which outlawed discrimination based on gender identity in public places such as hotels, restaurants, stores, etc. The law requires that individuals have access, based on their own self-identified gender identity, to areas that are segregated by gender such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

In November 2018, the Massachusetts ballot contained a ballot measure titled Massachusetts Question 3, Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Veto Referendum. The measure was initiated by citizens as a veto referendum, which is a type of ballot measure that asks voters to uphold or repeal a law that was already passed by a legislative body. The citizens who initiated this veto referendum wanted to repeal the gender identity anti-discrimination law. The veto referendum did not succeed– almost 68% of voters supported the law, thus it was upheld and resulted in a great stride towards inclusivity. (Source: Ballotpedia)

3. Florida: Amendment 2, $15 Minimum Wage Initiative

Also on the November 2020 ballot, Florida voters approved an initiated constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour incrementally through the year 2026. A “no” vote on this ballot measure would’ve kept the minimum wage at $8.56/hour. But over 60% of voters said “yes” to giving a substantial boost to living wages. (Source: VoteSmart.org)

4. Defense of Marriage Amendments (DOMA)

Marriage is commonly defined as “a union between a man and a woman.” During the early 2000s, many laws banning same-sex marriage were put in place through state constitutional amendments. These laws are collectively called Defense of Marriage Amendments. And in these cases, legislatures or citizens proposed ban’s to same-sex marriages through ballot measures were approved by 29 states.

For example, on Georgia’s 2004 ballot a ballot measure appeared titled the Georgia Definition of Marriage Amendment. This was a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that asked citizens to vote on whether the state constitution should be amended to only recognize marriage as “only the union of a man and woman.” It was approved with 76% of voters in favor of this amendment. (Source: Ballotpedia)

In 2015 however, the U.S. Supreme Court officially ruled, in a case called Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage. This Supreme Court ruling overturned all of the voter-approved constitutional bans on same-sex marriage that occurred before the ruling. (Source: Ballotpedia)

5. Nevada: Sales and Use Tax Amendment

In 2010, the Nevada ballot contained a legislatively referred state statute entitled Nevada Sales and Use Tax Amendment. It proposed allowing law makers to change certain tax laws without obtaining votes from the people. An overwhelming majority — almost 68% of voters — voted against this measure preferring voters be allowed to make this decision for themselves. (Source: Ballotpedia)


How Can You Get a Ballot Measure on your Ballot?

Although most ballot measures get on the ballot through the legislative process, citizens can also initiate ballot measures in many states by collecting signatures on a petition. In this section, we’ll talk about how citizens can initiate ballot measures and other ways in which ballot measures are implemented.

Citizen-Initiated Ballot Measures

In 26 states, citizens can start a petition and collect signatures to change laws, repeal laws, or get new laws on the ballot. These are called “Citizen-Initiated Ballot Measures.” To get started, citizens must collect a minimum number of valid signatures for the issue being supported in their petition. The petition is then presented directly to voters on a ballot or referred to the state legislature or other lawmakers.

Smiling woman wearing a hajib and holding a notebook.

Signature requirements vary widely and are often based upon a pool of voters in a particular jurisdiction. For example, the signature requirement for a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment in Illinois is “8 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the preceding gubernatorial election,” which totaled over 290,000 signatures required for the 2018 ballot. But in Nebraska, the signature requirement is “10 percent of registered voters,” which totaled approximately 122,000 signatures required for the 2018 ballot. (Source: Ballotpedia)

Indirect initiatives are referred to the State’s legislature or local lawmakers first, and will only be put to a popular vote if the legislature does not enact them. Thus, after a successful signature drive, the legislature can either approve the initiative themselves or have it appear on the ballot.

Direct initiatives are put up for vote on the ballot upon submitting the minimum signatures to the appropriate government jurisdiction. Unlike Indirect Initiatives, Direct Initiatives do not need to be submitted first to the jurisdiction’s lawmakers.

Sometimes citizen-initiated ballot measures ask voters to uphold or repeal a law that has already been passed by the state legislature or another legislative body. These are called veto referendums.

Can Citizens Use Ballot Measures to Amend State Statutes?

Yes, in some states, citizens can get ballot measures put on ballots to amend state laws and statutes. Of the 26 states that allow citizen-initiated ballot measures, 21 allow citizens to propose new state statutes via ballot measures. This is called Initiated State Statute. Like other citizen-initiated ballot measures, they can be either direct or indirect. An indirect initiated statute goes to the legislature after meeting the petition signature requirement so the legislature can either approve the initiative themselves or have it appear on the ballot. Whereas direct initiated statutes go directly to the ballot after a successful petition drive.

Can Citizens Use Ballot Measures to Amend State Constitutions?

Yes, in some states voters can get ballot measures added to the ballot that would change a state’s constitution. But as mentioned above, only 26 states allow citizen-initiated ballot measures. And only 18 of those 26 states allow for citizen petitions to amend the constitution, and this is called an Initiated Constitutional Amendment. Like other citizen-initiated ballot measures, they can be either direct and go straight to the ballot, or indirect having to go through the State’s legislature before going to the ballot.

The remaining states that don’t allow citizen Initiated Constitutional Amendments require the legislature to initiate constitutional amendments. This means voters can only approve or reject — not initiate — constitutional amendments in these states. (In 49 states, changing the state’s constitution requires the public to vote on a ballot measure. Delaware is currently the only state where no public vote is required for the legislature to amend the state constitution.)

How to Find Out if My State Allows Citizens to Initiate Ballot Measures?

If you are interested in starting a Citizen-Initiated Ballot Measure you can search for guidance on your state’s website. For example, the California Secretary of State website offers detailed information about how a measure can be placed on the ballot.

Another way to get this information is to search “signature requirements and deadlines by state” on Ballotpedia.org which has links to information about the signature requirements and deadlines for every state. They have a page with a map and a helpful chart that shows:

(a) which states allow citizen-initiated ballot measures,

(b) which states allow citizens to amend state constitutions, and

(c) which states allow citizens to amend state statutes.

If your state does not allow Citizen-Initiated Ballot Measures or if you are interested in finding other ways to see ballot measures appear on the ballot, you can contact your congressional representatives or local lawmakers to advocate for introducing ballot measures on behalf of their constituents or for your community.

Legislative-Initiated Ballot Measures

Legislatures of each state and other local law makers, such as city councils, county boards, and school boards, have the power to refer measures to appear on the ballot. These legislative members and law makers vote on whether issues should be brought to voters as ballot measures. The type of measures often include:

  • state constitutional amendments
  • changes to state statutes
  • changes to local ordinances
  • tax or budget expenditure proposals
  • advisory propositions or proposals

When legislatures refer statutes to the ballot, it is called a “legislatively referred state statute.” These appear as ballot measures on ballots because the state legislature voted to put it before the voters. Unlike citizen-initatied state statutes that are put on the ballot by a petition signed by registered voters, legislatively referred state statutes appear on the ballot by a vote of the legislature.

Similarly, when a state’s legislature has passed a proposed constitutional amendment and it puts it on the statewide ballot for voter’s to decide, it is called a “legislatively referred constitutional amendment.

Can Ballot Measures be Used to Gauge Public Opinion?

Yes, some ballot measures are non-binding questions that allow voters to merely specify their opinion about issues. These are referred to as advisory questions. Advisory questions are different from other types of ballot measures because they are non-binding, which means they will not result in a change in the statutes, constitution, or other laws. Instead, advisory questions are used most often by lawmakers to assess how voters feel about specific issues. In some states and local jurisdictions, advisory questions can be placed on the ballot by citizen-initiated petitions too.

Some states have allowed numerous non-binding Advisory Questions to appear on ballots, which some voters may find annoying. Because Advisory Questions are non-binding, opponents consider them meaningless and more like telemarketing polls. They argue that Advisory Questions are abused as a way to influence opinions, instead of legitimately gathering and measuring opinions. Those who are against Advisory Questions believe that because elections cost taxpayers money, every ballot measure should have meaningful effect on the issues presented. (PermanentDefense.org)

Thus, it’s important to know the purpose behind the ballot measures that appear on your ballot– who’s behind them, who supports them and what effect your vote will have. We’ll discuss this further in the sections below.

Why it is Important to Know The Difference Between Types of Ballot Measures

When voting for ballot measures, it’s important to know what your yes or no vote means. For starters, it’s helpful to understand the type of ballot measure being considered:

  • Initiative: Is it an initiative- a measure that proposes a brand-new law, or to change or remove an existing law?
  • Referendum: Is it a referendum- a measure asking whether you want to keep a law that the legislature (or other lawmaking body) has already voted to adopt?
  • Amendment: It is an amendment to the State Constitution or to some other set of fundamental governing principles that will change the government’s structure, operation, powers and duties, or citizen’s rights?
  • Advisory: Is it non-binding? Remember, advisory questions are non-binding and only seek to gauge public opinion. In contrast, other ballot measures such as initiatives, referendums and amendments are binding which means the majority vote will decide what happens with that issue.

Problems to Look For with Ballot Measures

Unclear Instructions

Some jurisdictions don’t do a good job of giving notice on the actual ballot about whether a ballot measure is binding or non-binding. Your ballot may just say, “Advisory Question” or “Amendment” or “Initiative,” which means it’s up to you to know and understand these different terms and the effect your vote will have. It’s up to you to know whether the measure is only seeking your opinion, or whether it is seeking your vote to change a law, policy or constitution.

Confusing Language

Ballot measures tend to be poorly worded. Often, they contain run-on sentences or excessive clauses that make it difficult to know whether your vote of yes/no will support it or not. Also, ballot measures may contain legal language or other unfamiliar terms that are hard to understand. This is why it’s important to know what’s on your ballot BEFORE you get to the poll. Sites like BallotReady.org, Ballotpedia.org and VoteSmart.org can help you learn about which ballot measures will appear on your ballot, what they propose, and how your yes or no vote will count.

Misinformation

Ballot measures can cover controversial issues and have wide impact on communities and states. As a result, extensive advertising and commercials are often launched by special interest groups to both educate and influence voters about the issues and laws affected. As with any type of promotion and advertising, deceptive tactics, sensational imagery, and half-truths are often used to sway voter’s opinions. You should be wary of such tactics to avoid mis-information. And make time to do your own own research to fully understand what’s at stake.

Man with brown-skin sitting in "thinkers pose" with chin resting on his hand.

What can you do if you want to get an issue on your next ballot?

  1. Determine what types of ballot measures are allowed by your state or jurisdiction. Ballotpedia is an excellent resource for this. Decide whether you can use a citizen-initiated method or if the legislative-initiated method is required.
  2. Learn about the requirements and deadlines for your state at Ballotpedia.org. Or, contact your local officials if the issue needs to be addressed at the city or county level.
  3. Research the pros and cons on your issue, and draft a full text of what the measure would entail and what laws or policies need to be changed (proposed, amended, repealed, etc.)
  4. Advocate on behalf of the measure through your community supporters, state representatives and local lawmakers.
  5. Educate voters about how the ballot measure is essential and affects their lives. Check out this guide from GoDaddy entitled, “How to launch a ballot initiative or referendum.
    It gives helpful tips on building an online hub, recruiting petition volunteers and raising funds.

What can you do to better understand the ballot measures on your ballot?

  1. Find out which ballot measures will appear on your ballot.
  2. Assess the purpose behind each ballot measure. What issue is it about? What will it do if passed or rejected? Who introduced or initiated it and why? Consider other assessment questions, such as those on the How To Evaluate Ballot Proposition webpage prepared by The League of Woman Voters of California.
  3. Take your research a step further by finding out whether any organizations that align with your values have taken a position about the measure. Visit websites of organizations you support, or call them up and ask them about their position.
  4. Use sources such as VotersEdge.org to find out who is funding a specific ballot measure. Listen for sponsor information at the end of commercials and look for sponsor logos and identification on printed advertising to find out who is supporting specific ballot measures by making or paying for ads.
  5. Pay attention to how advertisers for specific ballot measures are trying to influence your vote and whether their tactics are educational or misleading.
  6. Ballot measures are a form of direct democracy that have direct impact on your community so don’t treat it like a quiz you didn’t study for. Make time to learn the pros and cons of each ballot measure so you can participate in a meaningful way. If you prefer, you don’t have to vote on every ballot measure and instead try to focus on the ones that are most important to you.
  7. Get a sample ballot to see exactly how the ballot measures will be worded. Ballot measures are often described in unclear terms that are hard to understand. Become familiar with what each ballot measure is asking and what a yes or no vote actually means for each measure. Mark your sample ballot measure and take it with you to the polls. (Keep in mind that some jurisdictions may have laws against using cell phones inside the polling area, but your own notes written on paper should be acceptable.)
  8. Encourage someone else -a family, friend, coworker – by reminding them of pending ballot measures and helpful resources so they can participate in our democracy meaningfully and effectively too.
  9. VOTE via Early Voting options or on Election Day! And remember to bring your sample ballot with you!
  10. Stay alert after the election to see the results of the ballot measures you voted on and how it will impact your life and community.

Authors

  • I'm a college student interested in law, politics and history. I love learning about the ways different demographics, such as black people and women, have overcome systemic injustices. I hope to have a career that allows me to contribute to the liberation and advancement of my community.

  • I'm dedicated to helping others and using my skill set to help advance the causes I believe in. I enjoy writing articles to encourage others to do the same through advocacy and volunteering.

Tytiana Curtain

I'm a college student interested in law, politics and history. I love learning about the ways different demographics, such as black people and women, have overcome systemic injustices. I hope to have a career that allows me to contribute to the liberation and advancement of my community.

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