The Initiative and Referendum Process [An Overview & History]

In America, there is a heavy focus on the importance of the individual voice. Therefore, citizens are told that their voices have power. In addition, they are told that they have a say in things. So, how does that play out, exactly?

An obvious way, of course, is through voting. For example, each time there is an election, voters can use their voice to decide on important issues and candidates. Additionally, in many states, citizens are given an additional way to make their voices heard: the initiative and referendum process.

Initiative and Referendum Process

Initiatives and referenda are not the same. In other words, an initiative allows citizens to, in most cases, bypass state legislature to get an issue or amendment on the ballot. There are both direct and indirect initiatives. To clarify, direct initiatives allow the proposed statute or amendment to land directly on the ballot. Indirect initiatives, however, require that the proposed statute or amendment is given to the state legislature. 

A referendum, on the other hand, “refers to a measure that appears on the ballot,” according to NCSL.org. Like initiatives, there are two types of referenda: legislative and popular. To clarify, a legislative referendum is simply a measure given to the people on the ballot by the state legislature. Whereas, a popular referendum is a way for voters to approve or repeal an act of state legislature. For example, if the state legislature passes something that the people don’t approve of, they can gather signatures for a popular referendum. As a result, this would allow them to take a popular vote on the legislative act, thereby ensuring their voices are heard. 

As of now, twenty-four states allow the initiative process. Similarly, twenty-three states allow for a popular referendum. The legislative referendum is allowed in all fifty states, but this hasn’t always been the case.

A Brief History

The first state that allowed the initiative process was South Dakota in 1898. Since South Dakota adopted the initiative process, twenty-three other states have adopted it. However, this means that more than half of the states in America still don’t allow the initiative process. The most recent state to have adopted the initiative process was Mississippi. However, this is because they adopted the process back in 1914, then lost it on a legal technicality. It was only in 1992 that they finally were able to adopt the initiative process within their state.

Initiative States

The states that do allow the initiative process, along with the year they adopted it, are as follows:

  • Alaska (1956)
  • Arizona (1911)
  • Arkansas (1910)
  • California (1911)
  • Colorado (1912)
  • Florida (1972) 
  • Idaho (1912)
  • Illinois (1970)
  • Maine (1908)
  • Massachusetts (1918)
  • Michigan (1908)
  • Mississippi (1992)
  • Missouri (1908)
  • Montana (1972)
  • Nebraska (1912)
  • Nevada (1905)
  • North Dakota (1914)
  • Ohio (1912)
  • Oklahoma (1907)
  • Oregon (1902)
  • South Dakota (1898)
  • Utah (1917)
  • Washington (1912)
  • Wyoming (1968)

In other words, states adopted the initiative and referendum process together. However, there are a few exceptions of states that allow either the initiative or the referendum.

Referendum States 

A complete list of states that allow the referendum process are as follows: 

  • Alaska (1956)
  • Arizona (1911)
  • Arkansas (1910)
  • California (1911)
  • Colorado (1912)
  • Idaho (1912)
  • Maine (1908)
  • Maryland (1915)
  • Massachusetts (1918)
  • Michigan (1908)
  • Missouri (1908)
  • Montana (1972)
  • Nebraska (1912)
  • Nevada (1905)
  • New Mexico (1911)
  • North Dakota (1914)
  • Ohio (1912)
  • Oklahoma (1907)
  • Oregon (1902)
  • South Dakota (1898)
  • Utah (1917)
  • Washington (1912)
  • Wyoming (1968)

The initiative and referendum process has been an ongoing development in the United States over the last century and a half. In conclusion, in the states that allow it, many issues have been brought to the ballot using the initiative process. However, in states that don’t allow it, they continue to fight for the right to the initiative and referendum process for the citizens.

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