2012 Ballot Measures | Election Results


Voters made history in dramatic fashion, passing groundbreaking measures to legalize marijuana use and approve same-sex marriage on a day when 174 ballot measures were considered by the electorates of 38 states. That was the most since 2006 when 204 measures were on ballots.

In many states, ballots were quite long on Election Day, with voters in Alabama, California and Florida deciding on 11 statewide measures ranging  from implementation of the Affordable Care Act to same-sex marriage.

Of the 42 citizen initiatives on the ballot, voters approved 17. They rejected 23, and two remain too close to call at press time. In the 2000–2010 decade, voters approved 44.9% of all initiatives on the ballot. Of the 40 that are decided so far, 42.5% have been approved. That’s slightly below average and is subject to change as the results on these last two measures firm up. More

Voters in 38 states considered 172 statewide measures on Nov. 6. That broke down into 42 citizen initiatives and 12 popular referenda (another petition-driven process that's discussed below), 115 measures referred to the ballot by state legislatures, and five measures that fall into unique categories. These numbers are startlingly similar to what we saw on the 2010 ballot—that year, there were 113 legislative referenda and 42 citizen initiatives. The 2010 total, however, was lower at 160, because there were fewer popular referenda and "other" measures that year. Learn more about all 172 measures in NCSL's Ballot Measures Database.

Voters took a more negative view of ballot measures this year than in the past. Over the period 2000-2010, voters approved 45 percent of the citizen initiatives on statewide ballots, but this year just 42.5 percent got a "yes" (that leaves out two initiatives where results are still pending). Voters tend to be more receptive to measures referred to the ballot by state legislatures, approving an average of 85.7 percent of those in the 2000s. This year though, just 75.9 percent of legislative referenda were approved (again, this doesn't include two measures where results aren't yet complete).

Trends in 2012

A number of trends were notable in this year's crop of ballot measures, both in terms of the numbers and the issues represented.

  • There were far more popular referenda on the ballot this year than usual.
  • The number of citizen initiatives on the ballot remained low compared to the numbers we've seen over the past decade.
  • Key issues on this year's ballot included:
    • Education, particularly the funding of education through tax increases.
    • Drug policy, most notably the legalization of recreational marijuana in three states.
    • Marriage, a perennial issue on statewide ballots over the past decade, although this year there are several twists.
    • Health care, with states continuing to debate the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
    • Animal rights, with both the right to hunt and fish and farming and ranching practices on the ballot this year.
    • Bond measures, with proposals totaling $2.7 billion on the ballot in nine states.
    • Legislatures, with questions regarding term limits, sessions, legislator compensation and rules for certain votes in the legislature on the ballot in 2012.
    • Abortion, casinos, criminal justice and elections round out this year's set of trending issues on statewide ballots.

Historical Context

Here's a breakdown of where this year's measures are coming from, and a snapshot of the recent history:







Citizen initiatives






Popular referenda






Referred by legislatures













174 160 153 204 162


A Big Bump in the Popular Referendum

This year, there were 12 popular referenda on the November ballot. A more typical number would be more like two to four. You have to go all the way back to 1914 to find an election with more popular refenda on the ballot--that year there were 19. 1920 is the most recent election to match this year's total of 12; in all elections since then, there have been fewer.

Like the initiative, the popular referendum is a petition-driven process. There are significant differences between the two, however. In the initiative process, sponsors draft a new proposed law or constitutional amendment and gather signatures to demand a popular vote. With the popular referendum, sponsors gather signatures in an effort to overturn a new law that was passed by the legislature. If they gather enough signatures, the legislature's new law goes on hold until a popular vote is held. If voters approve the legislature's new law, it takes effect after the election. If voters veto the legislature's new law, it does not take effect.

The popular referendum, then, is a tool that allows voters to veto a recent action by the legislature. In fact, in Maine, they call it the "people's veto." The dramatically increased use of the popular referendum this year is a symptom of the political polarization going on in American politics and government, and it goes hand-in-hand with the increased use of the recall we have witnessed over the past two years. It is the other side's tug back in a political tug-of-war over politically polarized issues like same-sex marriage or teacher labor issues.

This year's 12 popular referenda come from both ends of the political spectrum: 

  • From the more liberal side, teacher unions are pushing back against changes enacted by the legislature in Idaho and South Dakota
  • Conservatives in Maryland and Washington are seeking to overturn changes that legalize same-sex marriage
Voters rejected efforts to rein in the influence of public employee unions in Idaho, Michigan and South Dakota, but approved nearly all other legislative bills on this year's ballot, including both same-sex marriage legalizations.