Ballot initiatives provide a unique opportunity for involvement in the democratic process. They allow voters to propose and, if successful, enact changes to the law at the local and state levels, including both legislation and constitutional amendments. Throughout the country, many major reforms in criminal justice, electoral justice, and more have been implemented through ballot initiatives. 

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In 2018, voters in Florida and Michigan passed important measures. Voters in Florida passed Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to people formerly incarcerated for felonies. This effort was the result of years of hard work and organizing by impacted communities and allies and required proponents to get 766,000 signatures in order to make the ballot. The measure passed with over 64% of the vote. Voters in Michigan passed a ballot initiative that would “create a 13-member independent citizens’ redistricting commission, composed of four Republicans, four Democrats, and five people who don’t identify with either party.”

 Ballot initiatives are an example of direct democracy, where people have the individual power to decide policy by voting on them directly, rather than electing representatives whom they hope will enact the policies voters want. Currently, 24 states permit some form of ballot initiative—of those states, 18 allow them to propose constitutional amendments, and 21 allow them to propose statutes.

There are two types of ballot initiatives: direct and indirect.

  • Direct initiatives place proposed policy changes directly on the ballot once certain requirements have been met. Proponents of an initiative need to collect a certain number of signatures from registered voters on a petition advocating for the proposal to be placed on the ballot.

  • Indirect initiatives, like direct initiatives, are started by proponents of a particular issue. In eight states, the proposal first goes to the state or local legislative body for consideration after proponents have gathered the requisite signatures. If the legislative body does not pass the law, it will go to the voters for consideration. In some states, if the legislative body passes a substantially similar law, it will preclude the initiative from moving forward.   

How does a ballot initiative become law?

At the most basic level, groups of citizens seeking to fill a void or make a change to state law can organize a ballot initiative. The exact process for moving from ballot initiative to law depends on the state. However, the National Conference of State Legislatures lays out the general process as a preliminary filing of the proposed language with the requisite official, review to make sure the petition complies with statutory requirements, preparation of the ballot title and summary, gathering signatures for the petition, and submission to the designated state official.

Each state that permits a citizen-led ballot initiative has its own process. Specifications for the signature requirement can include the number of “valid signatures” required, a deadline for submitting signatures and to which authorities, as well as the form and type of petition used to collect signatures.

If successful in getting their initiative added to the ballot, advocates move into a new phaseof organizing to get a critical mass of voters to support the proposal. The exact percentage needed to pass varies from state to state. Most just require that an initiative receive a majority vote to pass, though in some states, the number of votes cast on the initiative must meet or exceed a certain percentage of total votes cast in the election. A ballot initiative campaign can use many of the same tools and methods as a traditional political campaign, including endorsements and support from nonprofit organizations, businesses, public figures, community and faith leaders, elected officials, and others.

If a ballot proposal meets or exceeds the required percentage of votes, it will become law. The effective date is determined by the governing law of the particular state or jurisdiction. Even when a measure is successful, opponents can mount legal challenges to delay implementation or create additional barriers to enforcement.

Here’s a look at two ballot initiatives currently working their way through the process:

Spotlight: Reform LA Jails ballot initiative

Currently, Reform LA Jails is leading an effort that will reform the largest jail system in the country and address misconduct in the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. In order to get the measure on the ballot, organizers were required by law to turn in 146,333 signatures, which is 10% of the votes cast for governor in 2014. The Reform LA Jails campaign organizers submitted over 247,000 signatures to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. The initiative qualified for the presidential primary ballot in March.

Spotlight: Ohio voting rights ballot initiative

Ohio voting rights advocates have proposed a ballot initiative that would expand voting rights by implementing automatic voter registration and same day voter registration, expanding early voting, providing equal access to the polls for voters with disabilities, and ensuring that citizens in the military or who live overseas would receive their ballots on time. The Ohio Conference of the NAACP and the A. Philip Randolph Institute recently endorsed the ballot initiative. Ohio requires that an initial signature threshold be met to submit materials for review to the attorney general. According to the Ohio attorney general’s website, the current statewide signature total requirement is 442,958. Further, signatures must be gathered in at least half of Ohio’s counties, and in each county the signatures gathered must equal 5% of the votes cast for governor in the prior election.

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.