Ballot Initiatives

Method by which the people of various states exercise their retained right to initiate and adopt legislation directly. Proponents argue that the process is a particularly effective means of political expression, and of circumventing a legislature that is lethargic or captured by interest groups. Detractors focus on the weaknesses of the initiative process, including the misleadingly simplistic advertising used to explain complicated proposals to voters, the growing expense of getting measures on the ballot, and the related risk that the process is falling under the control of the same special interest groups it seeks to restrain.

The method of state lawmaking is not new; California, for example, adopted the process in 1911 and has deployed it with increasing frequency and importance over the last three decades. Californians have directly passed important laws doing everything from reducing local property taxes, creating new state agencies, abolishing race-based affirmative action, widening the scope of the death penalty and lifetime imprisonment, and imposing term limits on members of the state legislature. But today critics of the process, including many California voters themselves, are expressing some support for reforming the initiative process.

In states that use initiatives, to get a measure on the ballot supporters must collect a threshold number of citizen signatures, often tied to a percentage of the turnout at the last state election. The procedural details of the initiative power vary from state to state (and sometimes from locality to locality), but initiatives may be used to adopt state statutes, amendments to the state constitution, or both. States with an indirect initiative process require an intermediary step of submitting the proposed measure to the legislature. If approved by the legislature, the measure becomes law. If rejected, the measure will go to the people for their approval or rejection at the next election. By contrast, a direct initiative device allows measures to go straight onto the ballot after the signature threshold has been met and certified, without the measure having to be presented to the legislature for its consideration.

VIKRAM D. AMAR

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