Initiative Process 101

Twenty-four states have an initiative process. The initiative 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 right in their constitutions, the most recent being Mississippi in 1992. To view a table showing all of the initiative states, click here.

Direct vs. Indirect Initiative

There are two basic 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, which has a specific length of time to 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 which 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 choose either method.

How an Initiative is Qualified for the Ballot

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.

Voting on Initiatives

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 that 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.

For More Information

For more detailed information about specific steps in the initiative process, visit NCSL's web page on How the Initiative Process Works.

Wendy Underhill tracks initiatives and referendums and may be reached at 303-364-7700 or