Hearing the Voice of the People: Referendums and Initiatives

When Americans go to the polls, they do more than select officials to represent them. They also vote on proposals that will affect numerous aspects of their everyday lives. For example, when California voters went to the polls during the 1988 presidential election, they were confronted with many state issues, ranging from water conservation and education to automobile insurance and food programs for the needy.

How do these various proposals get on the ballot in the first place? It all depends on whether they are referendums or initiatives.

A referendum is the practice of submitting a measure passed or proposed by a legislative body to a popular vote. Sometimes a state legislature is required by law to refer pending legislation to the voters. Certain subjects may trigger this requirement, such as those involving large expenditures of state funds for roads or schools. In some states, the legislatures are permitted to voluntarily submit laws to the voters for approval.

In 24 states, citizens can also pass judgment on laws through a petition referendumn -- even though the state legislature opposes it. Under this procedure, if voters opposing a law can collect a specified percentage of voter signatures on a petition, the issue is put on the ballot at the next election.

In contrast to referendums, which allow voters to judge legislative measures, initiatives permit voters to propose laws themselves. Twenty-three states use initiative procedures. These authorize any registered voter to draft a law, but he or she must persuade a certain percentage of other registered voters (usually five to 15 percent of the voting population) to support it by signing a petition. In some states, an initiative is placed directly on the ballot, bypassing the state legislature altogether. In other states, the proposed law is sent to the legislature which may enact it or reject it. If the legislature does not act upon the measure within a specified time, however, the issue will be put on the ballot automatically.