Initiative & Referendum Institute
at the University of Southern California
I&R Studies / Reports and Briefing Papers
The following is a listing of studies that the Institute currently has electronic versions. The Institute takes no position on the content of these studies and is providing them for educational purposes only. If you have a study or know of a study that should be listed please send an email to email@example.com.
In addition to the studies actually listed on this page, you might want to check out the bibliography of law review and political science articles on initiatives and direct democracy that was prepared by Rosanne Krikorian of the University of Southern California Law Library.
We have also included a section that includes a sampling of referendum ballots and voter guides from the United States and other countries from around the world. Each one is from an election in which an initiative or referendum appeared on the ballot.
Many of these documents are in Adobe Acrobat PDF format - download the free Acrobat Reader.
Examines tax initiatives from 1978 to 1999 to develop a blueprint of citizen behavior in these types of initiatives. The evidence shows that when tax measures pass it’s usually the result of long-term dissatisfaction with current tax policy that elected officials have failed to address. Most importantly, this paper concludes that the record shows that the most important fiscal policy that voters seek is stability – stability in tax rates, stability in the level of tax increases, stability in the overall tax structure.
Discusses the history and law of direct democracy (or lack thereof) in Colorado counties.
Discusses the history and basic features of the initiative process in the United States, and critical issues concerning the initiative process. He describes the ways in which the New Jersey model addresses the critical issues, and concludes that it provides citizens with an important means of participation while avoiding many of the pitfalls of direct democracy.
Provides background on the initiative process in the United States, a discussion of Colorado ballot issues, a list of the claims and accusations made against the process with a rebuttal of each, and the conclusion that the petition right is not antithetical to representative government, but complementary.
Assess whether whites have dominated the California initiative process at the expense of Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans. They find that over the last 20 years, members of these minority groups have had roughly the same probability as whites of voting on the winning side of an initiative – which, given the higher participation rate of whites, is a remarkable finding.
While existing research has challenged the notion that direct legislation attracts additional citizens to the polls, the research designs employed have not been rigorous enough to establish confidence in the findings. This study provides more systematic evidence on the relationship between direct legislation and turnout. The author concludes that having direct legislation on the ballot boosts turnout by around 3% - enough to swing a close election.
Israel has introduced three of the four devices of direct democracy. However, its “controlled” referendums, held at the discretion of the government, do not imply that Israel is being transformed into a populist democracy. The institutions of direct democracy often work to the disadvantage of political parties, yet it is not automatically a device which weakens the power of the elite.
Ballot Initiatives: Empowering People or Derailing Democracy?
Many Swiss cantons (roughly equivalent to U.S. states) require voter approval via referendum before new spending projects can go into effect. In this study, we compare the spending behavior of cantons with and without such requirements, and find that spending is at least 17 percent less on average in those cantons with spending requirements. Representatives left to themselves tend to overspend, and referendums and initiatives are an effective constraint on overspending.
By historical consensus, I&R and the grassroots Tax Revolt have had an inseparable relationship. Presently 27 states have some form of "Tax and Expenditure Limitation" (TEL). I&R has enabled Tax and Expenditure Limitations to succeed for four key reasons: TELs proposed through initiative and referendum are more permanent; TELs proposed through initiative and referendum are stricter, other tax limits proposed through initiative and referendum are simpler and broader-based, and TELs and other tax limits proposed by initiative and referendum deliver on the relief they promise.
The number of initiatives qualifying for the California ballot has increased dramatically in the last 25 years. In the last decade, a number of researchers and several commissions have examined California’s initiative process, identified perceived weaknesses and recommended reforms. This report discusses California’s statewide initiative process, its history, public attitudes toward the process and current reform proposals. A summary of key recommendations is included.
Citizen Initiatives Under
Attack in Colorado / Paul Grant
Article about the initiative process in Oregon and the opposition of legislators to the process. The author quotes Thomas Jefferson: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves. And if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”
The authors examine how minorities fare under direct democracy. They propose that the threat of majority tyranny is not simply a function of direct democracy, but of the scale over which democracy is practiced. Pro-minority outcomes are significantly more likely in larger places, even when we control for the substantial effect of education.
This revised and updated study of the initiative and referendum process dates from the League research done in 1994 addressing the increasing use of the process, its encroachment into areas some previously thought to be the prerogative of the legislature, the use of paid signature gatherers, and the growing willingness of the Washington State Supreme Court to rule voter-passed initiatives unconstitutional. Although many of the ideas for change voiced in 1994 are included, a few new ones have been added. The stated purpose it to improve the process, not to hobble it.
Caroline J. Tolbert
This research places the increased use of direct democracy at the state level at as a component of a larger reform movement in American politics at the end of the twentieth century—a "new progressivism." It argues state initiative processes, both historically and today, serve as a catalyst for reform of our political system. Scholars, lawmakers and political activists increasingly recognize that the initiative process is an important venue for policy making in states (Bowler, Donovan and Tolbert 1998; Bowler and Donovan 1998; Gerber 1999; Rosenthal 1996; Smith 1998). This research suggests direct democracy matters, and shapes public policy across the states, especially in the area of political reform.
This paper studies the effect of direct democracy on the size and diversity of state interest groups. More groups mobilize in initiative states: direct democracy increases a state’s interest group population about 17%. Citizen interest groups are increased by about 29% whereas the increase is only 12% for economic groups, suggesting that direct democracy also increases the groups’ diversity.
Direct democracy has not been expanded to the national level in the United States, although a majority of Americans support it and it is common in other democracies. This paper considers some key provisions of the Democracy Act proposed by Philadelphia II and suggests some changes to make its requirements for the passage of national initiatives more stringent.
Final Report of the Initiative
and Referendum Institute’s Election Observers for the Somaliland Constitutional
Fiscal Effects of the Voter
Initiative in the First Half of the Twentieth Century / John G. Matsusaka
This is the first large-scale statistical study of the effects of the voter initiative in the United States, which examined state and local fiscal policies from 1960 to 1990. When the budgetary numbers were compared for states that allow voter initiative and states that do not, several clear patterns emerged. Initiatives led to significantly lower spending and taxes; led states to decentralize spending decisions, increasing local spending while decreasing spending on a state level; and led states to adopt a less redistributional revenue system with lower broad-based taxes and higher fees for services.
In delineating the relationship of direct democracy to the Federalist constitutional tradition, the author advances three claims. First, the initiative fits comfortably within the state constitutional tradition. Second, this compatibility derives from the belief that the primary danger facing republican government is minority faction – power wielded by the wealthy or well-connected few – rather than majority faction. Third, the state constitutional tradition is characterized by a distrust of government by elected representatives, which may tend to empower these minority factions. These considerations make direct democracy far more attractive.
This student paper discusses shortcomings in the I&R process and how Internet voting could improve it. Use of the Internet could increase voter turnout, provide more information to voters, and reduce the costs of launching an initiative.
This paper explores changes in the submission and qualification of ballot measures in California, updating the work of Magleby (1984). The paper updates findings about the institutional and structural hurdles necessary for initiative proposals to move from the formulation of ballot language to appearance on the ballot. The work goes further, offering a research strategy to understand how the "initiative industry" plays a critical role in the initiative process.
This paper explores the effect of the presence of the initiative process on lobbying strategies, using data collected by the author. Groups in initiative states use outside strategies more and inside strategies less. Groups that are involved in potential initiatives may be able to use this leverage to increase their ability to inside lobby.
Many observers blame the California budget crisis on a series of voter initiatives that unrealistically appropriated spending while prohibiting tax increases. However, a review of all initiative measures approved by the voters since 1912 shows that no more than 32 percent of appropriations in the 2003-04 budget were locked in by initiatives. Virtually all of the earmarked spending was for education, and would have been appropriated by the legislature even without an initiative mandate. Initiatives placed only minimal constraints on the legislature’s ability to raise revenue. The facts suggest that voter initiatives are not a significant obstacle to balancing the budget in California.
While scholars have devoted considerable attention recently to the fiscal and policy impact of tax-related ballot initiatives, this paper instead examines how anti-tax measures come to be placed before the general public for popular votes. All six 1996 anti-tax measures had substantial support from vested special interests and were only in the most limited sense grassroots endeavors.
The citizens of Mississippi with the passage of the initiative and referendum amendment to the Mississippi Constitution in 1992 reserved for themselves the power to propose amendments to their constitution. This authority is shared with the Legislature. After the near passage of a 1995 term limits initiative there are undoubtedly those within the legislative branch who consider the I&R process a threat to legislative preeminence and want this power back. An earlier version of I&R was struck down by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1922. The question now is whether a bill passed during the 1996 regular session, H.B. 472, will be allowed to kill it again.
A recurrent issue in discussions of the initiative and referendum ("I&R") process has been whether, and to what extent, I&R violates that portion of Article IV, 4 of the United States Constitution providing that the United States shall guarantee every state a "republican form of government" -- a provision commonly called the Guarantee Clause. In this paper, the author examines the historical record and shows that although one of the Framers -- Madison -- expressed a personal preference for a wholly representative form, all of the Framers who spoke on the issue, including Madison, acknowledged that direct democracy could be major, even a dominant, part of a republican government.
Initiative and Referendum for
Alabama: Empower the People / M. Dane Waters
Report by the National Conference of State Legislatures task force, a diverse, bipartisan group representing seven of the 24 initiative states and the District of Columbia which also included industry members. The Initiative and Referendum Task Force found that opportunities for abuse of the process outweigh its advantages and does not recommend that states adopt the initiative process if they currently do not have one. For states intent on adopting an initiative process, the task force recommends advisory or general policy initiatives, and it suggests that initiative states reform drafting, certification, signature-gathering and financial disclosure statutes; adhere to single subject rules; and improve practices regarding voter education. It also recommends that initiatives be allowed only on general election ballots.
The directive to the Speaker’s Commission on the California Initiative Process was to review the initiative process and recommend changes to make it more responsive to the people. The recommendations in this report focus on four objectives: to improve the quality of the drafting of initiatives placed on the ballot by providing a system for early review; to increase public disclosure of the financing of initiatives and the information available to the voters on the policy issues appearing on the ballot; to improve the signature qualification process; and to clarify the judicial standard for reviewing initiative measures.
Changes in the political temperament of Canadians have created new pressures for public input and control over political decision-making. In this latest contribution to the Strengthening Canadian Democracy series, Matthew Mendelsohn and Andrew Parkin offer a thoughtful consideration of the advantages and drawbacks of making referendums a staple of Canadian political life.
Do governments only submit issues to referendums if they are certain that they will win? This paper shows conclusively that the constitutional referendums in Western polities have performed the functions of constitutional safeguards, and that the governments have been unsuccessful in their attempts to control the referendum.
Direct democracy in California has found itself in the middle of the unresolved conflict between democratic governance and the judicial protection of civil liberties, with initiatives often scrutinized by the courts. California courts, however, are not of one mind when it comes to initiatives. Part of the reason behind the courts' diverging views on judicial scrutiny of initiatives is that, depending on the level of court, judges are selected through three very different methods ranging from competitive elections to lifetime appointments. These differences in the system of judicial selection at the state and federal courts have a significant impact on California's judicial review of initiatives.
In Texas, voter turnout for ballot measures is extremely low: only about 10%. There are at least three reasons for this: one, the propositions arise only out of the legislature, not from grassroots efforts; two, these proposition are voted on in odd-numbered years when candidates are not running for office; and three, the electorate (sometimes falsely) perceives the propositions as representing mere technical changes to the constitution. The most likely reason for the difference in voter turnout between Texas and states such as South Dakota and California, which have more than 50% voter turnout, is that in those states the measures originate with the people through the initiative process.
Since 1978, activists have proposed and passed initiatives limiting taxing and spending by state governments in the United States. State legislatures also have occasionally imposed tax and expenditure limitations (TELs) on themselves. TELs passed by initiative are more restrictive and contain fewer loopholes than those enacted by state legislatures. TELs enacted by citizen initiatives cause per capita public spending to decrease, while TELs enacted by state legislatures are associated with an increase in government expenditures.
On Election day 1998, voters considered 240 state and local measures related to conservation, parklands, and smarter growth and approved 72 percent of them. This paper provides a guide to the goals, finance techniques and strategies of successful measures; discusses regional variations in the success rate; examines lessons from ballot-box defeats; and assesses growing grassroots support for land conservation and more livable communities means for policymakers and practitioners.
Mississippi’s initiative and referendum laws outline cumbersome procedures, rigorous requirements, and potentially ambiguous outcomes. Mississippi's procedures force initiative measures to go through a potential series of nineteen steps. Mississippi has the second highest signature threshold for initiated constitutional amendments in the nation, a geographic distribution requirement more difficult to meet than any other state, and a "super-majority" voting requirement of an unprecedented level. It is hoped that this report will enable public officials and citizens to develop a better understanding of the enigmatic and intricate privilege placed in the hands of the Mississippi electorate.
Ireland was the only country to hold a referendum on the Nice Treaty. Unexpectedly, the voters refused to ratify it by a 53.87 percent margin. This paper analyzes the campaign and possible reasons for the treaty’s rejection.
Most theoretical models predict that institutions allowing for direct legislation should lead, on average, to policies more closely reflecting the wishes of the voters. While some agreement exists at the theoretical level about the expected policy consequences of direct legislation, empirical evidence has been scant so far. In this paper I discuss the reasons for this scant ness of empirical evidence, namely the intricacies of the adequate empirical model to test the theoretical proposition, and suggest possible solutions to this problem. Re-analyzing a dataset with which some authors have found no evidence in support of the theoretical claim, I show that with better adapted empirical models we find results in synch with our theoretical expectations. Thus, policies in states that allow for direct legislation reflect on average more closely the voters’ wishes.
This paper, which appeared in the New England Journal of History in 2001, reviews the historical basis for the establishment of the recall during the Progressive Era.
Over the past few years, as the volume of direct legislation has increased in the American states, a handful of state legislatures have considered or passed counter-majoritarian bills which directly challenge the electoral results of previous statutory ballot measures. Lawmakers especially seem to be targeting two types of successful statewide ballot initiatives: legislative term limits and animal protection measures. The author suggests that counter-majoritarian legislation epitomizes two systems of representation, direct democracy representing a majority of voters and state legislatures representing districts. He suggests that the opposition of legislatures to these popular measures is due to a disparity in the views of urban and rural voters.
Proponents of signing petitions over the Internet say it will lower the cost of initiative campaigns – thereby reducing the influence of well-financed interest groups – and increase the public’s participation in the process and understanding of specific measures. Opponents question whether Internet security is adequate to prevent abuse and argue that it would create disadvantages to those who lack access to the Internet and would possibly make it too easy to qualify an initiative. This paper discusses these issues, the current trends, and recommendations including those of the California Speaker’s Commission on the Initiative Process.
This report discusses Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, Inc., et al., in which the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of various restrictions imposed by Colorado on the petition process for ballot initiatives. The Court struck down regulations requiring that circulators be registered voters and that all circulators wear identification badges, as well as provisions requiring the disclosure of paid circulators and amounts disbursed to each.
Despite its widespread appeal and long history in American government, the initiative process remains controversial. One of the most recurrent criticisms is that the initiative allows well organized and well financed special interests to subvert the policy process. This article reports some scientific evidence on the subversion hypothesis. For the period 1987- 2000, the evidence shows that the initiative changed the course of state and local fiscal policy, but that the changes were consistent with the wishes of the majority. None of the evidence supports the subversion hypothesis.
The court’s role in the initiative process is more important than its role in reviewing laws passed by legislatures because judicial review is the only effective institutional check in the initiative process, and because judicial review is invoked much more regularly for initiatives than for laws passed by legislatures. Two competing views have emerged in the courts: the view that courts should give as much deference as possible to the will of the people, and the view that they should vigorously exercise their role as the only check on the process. This study examines actual outcomes of initiative challenges in three high-use initiative states (California, Oregon and Colorado) over the past four decades to measure how the competing roles play out in practice.
Instituted in 1911, the statewide initiative process was a Progressive Era response to the perceived influence of corporate interests on the state legislature at that time. Since the 1970s, California has come to rely heavily on direct democracy to make major policy decisions. The increase in campaign spending on initiatives and the growth and influence of the “initiative industrial complex” have made it increasingly difficult to regard the initiative process as the citizenry’s protection against special interests, but the process remains popular. This study addresses many questions about the process in California.
In his testimony, Dane Waters compares the initiative process as it exists in different states, points out some of the reforms that should be considered, and reminds the Commission that the people are the sovereigns. This document also includes a state-by-state account of the indirect initiative process by Fred Silva, tables comparing states’ restrictions on the initiative process, procedures involved in the process, and legislative or executive power to change or repeal initiative laws, and a discussion of major legal cases regarding the funding of ballot measure campaigns.
For almost one hundred years, ballot initiatives and referenda have accurately reflected the most pressing popular concerns in their jurisdictions, and their use has been a barometer of popular discontent with elected officials and bipartisan consensus, both local and national. This study discusses the history of the process and the issues currently on the I&R scene, including environmental issues. It concludes that if environmentalists and other progressives are to continue to use the process effectively, they will need increased technical assistance and financial support from the national environmental community and progressive foundations in order to build on their basic strengths.
Using pooled time series data for the 50 states over a 26-year period (1970-1996), the authors find that the presence and usage of the initiative process is associated with higher voter turnout in both presidential and midterm elections. The disparity in turnout rates between initiative and non-initiative states has been increasing over time, estimated at 7% to 9% higher in midterm and 3% to 4.5% higher in presidential elections in the 1990s. Their analysis suggests that the initiative process can and does play a positive role in increasing electoral participation.
Israel is in a process of what we might call direct democratization. Political scientist Arend Lijphart has argued that there are four institutions of direct democracy; the recall, the primary, the direct election of the chief executive, and the referendum. Israel has introduced all but one of these devices. The difficulties inherent in the process have led to a widespread tendency to regulate the referendum, by introducing qualified majorities, majority quorums, etc. This brief presents an update on the subject.
This Primer includes a look at this history of the initiative and referendum process, a comparison of the process as it exists in different states, a state-by-state account of the indirect initiative process, major legal cases regarding the funding of ballot measure campaigns, important court cases relating to the initiative and referendum process, and major initiative and referendum legislation since 1998.
This study examines the impact the “initiative industry” has had on the initiative process in the United States. It provides information and insights on what the initiative industry is, how it has changed over the years, the impact it has had on the number of initiatives making the ballot and the subsequent success rate of these initiatives, and concludes by discussing the basic steps associated with undertaking an initiative campaign and the cost of undertaking an initiative campaign.
A four-month long Institute for Policy Studies investigation by freelance journalist Daniel Forbes details political malfeasance, the misuse of public funds and the inappropriate use of government resources in Ohio. With overall control of budgets, jobs and sentencing policy at stake, Ohio Governor Bob Taft and the highest reaches of his administration organized a sophisticated, sub-rosa campaign to defeat a drug treatment rather than incarceration amendment likely to appear on the ballot in November.
This paper compares the economic performance of states that have the initiative process to states that do not have it. The findings suggest that between the years 1969 and 1986, states with initiative systems wasted between 20 and 30 percent fewer resources than non-initiative states, resulting in better economic performance in terms of higher GDF growth and faster convergence.
This study examines the involvement of political parties in ballot measure contests and the impact of partisanship on initiative voting. Focusing on recent ballot contests in California, the authors find that the two major party organizations in California are actively using ballot initiatives to bolster voter turnout for their candidates, divide the opposition with ‘wedge’ issues and promote their own party’s platform and ideology. The study shows how political parties are shaping not only the process, but also the politics of direct democracy.
This paper provides insight into the interplay between the interest group proposing an initiative and the inferences a voter should draw regarding the effect of the proposed policy on his or her well-being. The expected benefit of an initiative is negatively related to the size of the sponsoring group, for both its members and nonmembers.
This study is a survey of
referendums dealing with questions of sovereignty. The author discusses basic
trends in referendum use, the categories of sovereignty referendums, the rise of
the sovereignty referendum, independence referendums, border disputes, the
transfer of sovereignty, and incorporation and secession referendums.
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USC School of Law
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