Initiative, Referendum and Recall
In political terminology, the initiative is a process that enables citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed statutes and, in some states, constitutional amendments on the ballot. The first state to adopt the initiative was South Dakota in 1898. Since then, 23 other states have included the initiative process in their constitutions, the most recent being Mississippi in 1992. That makes a total of 24 states with an initiative process.
There are two types of initiatives: direct and indirect. In the direct process, proposals that qualify go directly on the ballot. In the indirect process, they are submitted to the legislature, may act on the proposal. Depending on the state, the initiative question goes on the ballot if the legislature rejects it, submits a different proposal or takes no action. In some states with the indirect process, the legislature may submit a competing measure that appears on the ballot along with the original proposal. States with some form of the indirect process are Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and Ohio. In Utah and Washington, proponents may select either the direct or indirect method.
No two states have exactly the same requirements for qualifying initiatives to be placed on the ballot. Generally, however, the process includes these steps:
(1) preliminary filing of a proposed petition with a designated state official;
(2) review of the petition for conformance with statutory requirements and, in several states, a review of the language of the proposal;
(3) preparation of a ballot title and summary;
(4) circulation of the petition to obtain the required number of signatures of registered voters, usually a percentage of the votes cast for a statewide office in the preceding general election; and
(5) submission of the petitions to the state elections official, who must verify the number of signatures.
If enough valid signatures are obtained, the question goes on the ballot or, in states with the indirect process, is sent to the legislature. Once an initiative is on the ballot, the general requirement for passage is a majority vote. Exceptions include Nebraska, Massachusetts and Mississippi. Those states require a majority, provided the votes cast on the initiative equal a percentage of the total votes cast in the election: 35 percent in Nebraska, 30 percent in Massachusetts and 40 percent in Mississippi. In Wyoming, an initiative must receive a majority of the total votes cast in a general election. For example, in Wyoming's 1996 general election the votes cast totaled 215,844, so an initiative would have had to receive at least l07,923 votes to be passed. In Nevada, initiatives amending the constitution must receive a majority vote in two consecutive general elections.
"Referendum" is a general term which refers to a measure that appears on the ballot. There are two primary types of referenda: the legislative referendum, whereby the Legislature refers a measure to the voters for their approval, and the popular referendum, a measure that appears on the ballot as a result of a voter petition drive. The popular referendum is similar to the initiative in that both are triggered by petitions, but there are important differences.
Legislatures are often required to refer certain measures to the ballot for voter approval. For instance, changes to the state constitution must be approved by voters before they can take effect. Many state legislatures are also required by their state constitutions to refer bond measures and tax changes to the voters. Although this is not always the case, legislative referenda tend to be less controversial than citizen initiatives, are more often approved by voters than citizen initiatives, and often receive higher vote thresholds. Legislative referenda may appear on the ballot in all 50 states.
The popular referendum is a device which allows voters to approve or repeal an act of the Legislature. If the Legislature passes a law that voters do not approve of, they may gather signatures to demand a popular vote on the law. Generally, there is a 90-day period after the law is passed during which the petitioning must take place. Once enough signatures are gathered and verified, the new law appears on the ballot for a popular vote. During the time between passage and the popular vote, the law may not take effect. If voters approve of the law, it takes effect as scheduled. If voters reject the law, it is voided and does not take effect. 24 states have the popular referendum. Most of them are also initiative states.
A third form of referendum, the advisory referendum, is rarely used. In this form of the process, the Legislature, and in some states the governor, may place a question on the ballot to gauge voter opinion. The results of the election on this question are not binding. An example of an advisory referendum is Question 5, which appeared on the Rhode Island ballot in 2002. Placed on the ballot by the governor, Question 5 asked voters if they favored changing the state constitution to make the three branches of government co-equal. Although voters overwhelming voted yes, the question was non-binding and the governor and legislature were not obligated to act upon the measure.
Recall is a procedure that allows citizens to remove and replace a public official before the end of a term of office. Recall differs from another method for removing officials from office – impeachment – in that it is a political device while impeachment is a legal process. Impeachment requires the House to bring specific charges and the Senate to act as a jury. In most of the recall states, specific grounds are not required, and the recall of a state official is by an election. Eighteen states permit the recall of state officials. A recent, high-profile example of the recall process was the recall of California Governor Gray Davis and his replacement with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.
For more information on initiative, referendum and recall, contact Wendy Underhill.