Initiative Petition Signature Requirements
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Actual Signature Requirements
Updated Sept. 20, 2012
State signature requirements for ballot access vary widely. They usually are based on a percentage of votes cast for a particular office-most often the office of governor-in the most recent election. In a few states, the requirement is based on total votes cast, total registered voters, or total state residents.
In most states that have both a statutory and constitutional initiative process, there is usually a higher signature threshold to qualify a constitutional initiative. The only exceptions are Colorado, Massachusetts and Nevada. The distinction exists because it is widely believed that amending the constitution should be more difficult than amending the statutes. Some reformers, however, argue that a more effective manner of achieving this goal would be to require a higher vote to approve constitutional initiatives than statutory initiatives. This argument is supported by the fact that the higher signature threshold for constitutional initiatives is rarely a barrier to achieving ballot status, provided proponents have ample funds to pay signature gatherers.
Some states also have a geographic distribution requirement. These states require that signatures be gathered from multiple parts of the state, preventing petitioners from gathering signatures only in the most densely populated urban areas. The idea behind such requirements is that all voters, not just those in urban areas, should have a say in which proposals achieve ballot status.
Requirements for Statutory Initiatives
Percentage requirements for signatures on statutory initiatives range from a low of 2 percent of the resident population in North Dakota (13,452 for 2012 ballot access), to a high of 15 percent of the total number of votes cast in the preceding election in Wyoming (28,624 signatures for 2012 ballot access). However, because Wyoming is a small population state, there are other states where the actual number of signatures that must be gathered is higher. The highest actual signature requirement is California, where 504,760 signatures are required to place a statutory initiative on the 2012 ballot (equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election).
Requirements for Constitutional Initiatives
Percentage requirements for signatures on constitutional amendments range from a low of 3 percent of total votes cast for governor in Massachusetts (68,911 for 2012 ballot access), to a high of 15 percent of total votes cast for governor in Arizona (259,213 for 2012 ballot access) and Oklahoma (155,216 for 2012 ballot access). Once again, however, thanks to its large population, California has the highest total actual signature requirement for 2012 ballot access at 807,615 (equal to 8 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election).
Geographic Distribution Requirements
Many initiative states are primarily rural, with a substantial proportion of their populations centered in a few urban areas. In states that follow this population pattern but that lack a geographic distribution requirement for signatures, it is not only possible but common for initiative proponents to gather all their signatures in the state's largest city. The voters in the largest city, therefore, may decide for the state as a whole what issues make the ballot and what issues do not.
Half of the 24 initiative states currently require that signatures be gathered from around the state. Supporters of geographic distribution requirements say they are important because they force initiative proponents to demonstrate that their proposal has support statewide, not just among the citizens of the state's most populous region. Critics say geographic distribution requirements place an unfair burden on initiative proponents, since it is much more difficult to gather signatures in rural areas than it is in urban areas. They also claim that such requirements mean that fewer initiatives qualify for the ballot.
Polling data suggests that voters generally support the idea of requiring initiative proponents to gather their signatures from various parts of the state. In fact, as recently as 2004, Alaska voters approved a more stringent geographic distribution requirement than what was on the books at the time. Voters in Montana approved of a pair of legislative proposals to make that state's geographic distribution requirement even more restrictive in 2001, and Wyoming voters did the same in 1998. On the other hand, Colorado voters in 2008 rejected a sweeping reform of their initiative process which would have included a geographic distribution requirement for constitutional initiatives. A February 1995 poll conducted by the City Club of Portland showed that Oregon voters also supported a geographic distribution requirement. The fact that they later rejected a 2000 constitutional amendment on this very issue may reflect their dissatisfaction with the stringency of that particular proposal, rather than a drop-off in support for the general idea of geographic distribution requirements.
It should be noted that Idaho and Nevada geographic distribution requirements were held unconstitutional by federal courts in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Nevada has since replaced their previous geographic distribution requirement with a new formula that is designed to withstand judicial scrutiny, and the new requirement was upheld in March 2012 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Rather than requiring the same percentage of signatures in each county, the new requirement is based on Congressional districts. Other states have geographic distribution requirements that are based on legislative or congressional districts as well. These requirements are less likely to be found unconstitutional. The rulings affecting the Idaho and Nevada geogrpahic distribution requirements found fault in the fact that the requirements were county-based, and population can vary dramatically from one county to another. Therefore, it may be much more difficult to gather the signatures of 10% of the voters in a low-population county than to do it in a high-population county.
Signatures on Indirect Initiatives
Some states have what's called an indirect initiative process. In these states, sponsors gather a smaller number of signatures to reach the first stage of qualification. Once enough valid signatures are gathered to meet this first stage's threshold, the initiative goes before the state legislature. If the legislature enacts the proposal, no further petition takes place and the proposal becomes law. If the legislature fails to enact the proposal as written, sponsors then go through a second stage of signature-gathering. If sufficient valid signatures are gathered in this second phase, the proposal goes on the ballot for voter consideration. Massachusetts, Ohio and Utah have processes like this.
Other Variations in the Process
Missouri and Nebraska have unique signature requirements. In Missouri, signature requirements are based entirely on congressional districts. The requirement states that a petition must garner valid signatures from six of the state's nine congressional districts that equal five percent (for a statutory proposal) or eight percent (for a constitutional proposal) of the votes cast for governor in that district in the last election. That means the total number of signatures required for ballot access will vary depending upon which congressional districts sponsors put together to reach the total of six.
In Nebraska, the total number of signatures is based upon the total number of registered voters in the state (remember, most states base their requirements upon the vote cast for a particular office at the last election). Since the total number of registered voters is constantly changing, with new voters being added and ineligible voters being removed, that presents a dilemma for the state. The state must essentially pick a point in time at which to capture a snapshot of the total number of registered voters in order to provide a baseline for petition ballot access. For the last several years, that date has been pinned at the petition filing deadline. That makes it difficult for petitioners, since they must monitor a constantly changing number while they are gathering signatures, and hope that the petitions they turn in meet the number on the deadline.
For More Information
For more information on the initiative process, contact Jennie Drage Bowser in NCSL's Denver office.