Ballot Initiatives

E-newsletter Issue #53 | August 19, 2010

The initiative process enjoys widespread support in every state, according to a survey from the Citizens in Charge Foundation that was released at the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy July 30.

That survey found 67 percent favor the initiative and referendum process, 14 percent oppose it and 10 percent are unsure about the process.

The support comes from all political ideologies,...

Odd-numbered years typically generate relatively few state constitutional amendments, and 2009 was particularly quiet, even compared with previous odd-year elections. Voters in only five states considered 21 amendments. The most high-profile amendments were a package of California measures that were intended to address the state’s budget shortfall but were largely rejected in a May special election. Meanwhile, Ohio voters approved an amendment authorizing casino gambling and Texas voters approved an amendment restricting use of the eminent domain power. Much of the attention focused on the future—on preparing amendments for the 2010 ballot.  

Voters decided 32 ballot propositions in seven states in 2009, approving 22 of them. The highest profile measures concerned same-sex marriage and taxes. The number of measures and the approval rate was down modestly from recent odd-year elections. For the decade as a whole, initiative activity remained high in the 2000s, at about the same level as the historical peak of the 1990s.

Contrary to the claims of many pundits, voter initiatives have not constrained the California budget to the extent that fiscal crises are inevitable. I reach this conclusion by examining each of the 111 successful initiatives in the state’s history. For the 2009-2010 budget cycle, voter initiatives locked in about 33 percent of spending, most of which probably would have been appropriated even if not required, and placed no significant prohibitions on the two primary sources of state revenue—income and sales taxes.

Fewer state constitutional amendments were proposed and approved in 2008 than in recent evennumbered years. Several amendments, however, generated considerable attention. Voters in three more states approved same-sex marriage bans, including the first measure to overturn a state court ruling that had legalized the practice. Two more affirmative action bans were proposed; one was approved, the other defeated, marking the first popular rejection of such a measure. Other notable amendments addressed abortion, voting rights, redistricting, gambling and investment of public funds in the stock market. Meanwhile, voters in three states rejected automatically referred measures on whether to call constitutional conventions.

Voters approved 58 percent of the 174 ballot propositions considered in 37 states in 2008. The number of measures as well as the approval rate was down modestly from recent years. No ideological trend appeared —both liberal and conservative measures were approved. The highest profile issue was a ban on gay marriage in California. Nationwide, voters approved more than $13 billion in state bonds despite the ongoing financial crisis.

Relatively few state constitutional amendments were proposed and adopted in 2007, although the number of amendments was generally in line with patterns seen in recent off-year elections. The amendments that did appear on the ballot proved relatively uncontroversial; only three amendments were defeated at the polls and those dealt with taxation and revenue changes. Legislators and political activists devoted a good deal of attention to qualifying amendments for the 2008 ballot, particularly regarding issues such as same-sex marriage, affirmative action, eminent domain and abortion, all of which have been the subject of significant amendment activity in recent years.

When it comes to voters’ reactions to initiatives and referenda on the ballot in 2002, “cautious” was the word of the day. Amidst concerns about war, terrorism and the economy, the voters once again defied party labeling and voted their conscience when it came to ballot measures. In a time of great uncertainty, voters picked through the list of statewide ballot measures and systematically made their feelings known, while at the same time not revealing whether their underlying principles lean more liberal or conservative. The great race to categorize the voters’ political beliefs will once again have to wait for another election day.

When comparing the use of initiatives and referenda, one can argue that the initiative process has the greater impact on the day-to-day operations of state governments. Little debate surrounds the use of the referendum process because most of the issues that are placed on the ballot by state legislatures are there because the law requires a public vote. For this reason and because of the fact that great controversy surrounds the initiative process itself, this article will focus on the use of the statewide initiative process.

Chapter 5 of the 2000-2001 Book of the States contains the following tables:

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