The Indirect Initiative


Eight states currently offer an indirect initiative process. In the indirect initiative process, a proposed initiative is referred to the legislature after proponents have gathered the required number of signatures. The legislature has the option to enact, defeat or amend the measure. Depending on the legislature's action, the proponents may continue to pursue placement on the ballot for a popular vote. In three states (Massachusetts, Ohio and Utah), proponents must gather additional signatures to place the measure on the ballot; in the others, it automatically goes to the ballot.

States with an Indirect Initiative Process


Constitutional Amendments

Statutory Initiatives

























*State also has a direct initiative process; proponents may select the direct or indirect route.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, January 2002.

In several states (Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and Washington), it is specifically provided for in law that the legislature may place an alternate proposition on the ballot with the initiative. Voters may vote for one or the other or for neither.

Alaska and Wyoming's initiative processes are sometimes cited as indirect. However, instead of requiring that an initiative be submitted to the legislature for action, they require only that an initiative cannot be placed on the ballot until after a legislative session has convened and adjourned, thus providing the legislature with the opportunity to address the issue if it so chooses.

Two states--Utah and Washington--offer both the direct and indirect initiative process; proponents have the option of choosing either. In Utah, the initial signature requirement is lower for the indirect process. This serves as an incentive to proponents to choose the indirect route and thus incorporate the legislature into the process. Qualifying an initiative directly to the ballot requires signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election; presenting an indirect initiative to the Legislature requires signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election. However, if the indirect initiative is rejected by the Legislature, proponents must gather additional signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor, creating a total signature threshold for indirect initiatives that is higher than that for direct initiatives. As a consequence, use of Utah's indirect initiative is significantly lower than use of the direct method.

California had an indirect initiative process until 1966. It was available in addition to the direct process, and proponents were permitted to choose the process they would use. The indirect option was rarely used, and voters approved its abolition in 1966.

Nevada currently has an indirect process for statutory initiatives. At one time, it also had the indirect process for initiative constitutional amendments, but it abolished this option in 1962. Voters approved a constitutional amendment referred by the Legislature that abolished the indirect process for constitutional amendments and at the same time imposed the requirement that any constitutional amendment be approved by a majority vote in two successive elections.

Pros & Cons

The indirect initiative is frequently offered as an improvement over the direct initiative because it allows for legislative analysis, committee hearings, floor debate, and, if initiative proponents agree, amendment of an initiated proposal before its passage by the legislature. Legislative deliberation and debate on the issue itself and its effect on other existing policies may result in an improved initiative proposal because unintended consequences and errors may come to light.

Pitfalls exist in the indirect initiative process, however, which prevent it from being a panacea to the problems of the initiative. The main argument against the indirect initiative is that, where the process is currently offered, legislatures rarely take up the initiative proposal and, when they do, they almost always reject initiative proposals. Rarely do they engage in negotiation with initiative proponents and seek to craft a compromise. Most often, indirect initiatives are rejected by the legislature and end up on the ballot for a popular vote; the indirect process has done little but prolong the initiative process.

For more information on initiative and referendum, contact Wendy Underhill in NCSL's Denver office.