What are ballot propositions, initiatives, and referendums?

Ballot measures or ballot propositions are proposals to enact new laws or constitutional amendments or repeal existing laws or constitutional amendments that are placed on the ballot for approval or rejection by the electorate. There are several different kinds of ballot measures:

An initiative is a proposal of a new law or constitutional amendment that is placed on the ballot by petition, that is, by collecting signatures of a certain number of citizens. Twenty-four states have the initiative process (list). Of the 24 states, 18 allow initiatives to propose constitutional amendments and 21 states allow initiatives to propose statutes. In most cases, once a sufficient number of signatures has been collected, the proposal is placed on the ballot for a vote of the people ("direct initiative"). In some cases, the proposal first goes to the legislature, and if approved by the legislature, is not voted on by the people ("indirect initiative"). For constitutional amendments, 16 states allow direct initiatives and two allow indirect initiatives. For statutes, 11 states allow direct initiatives for statutes, seven allow indirect initiatives, and two states (Utah and Washington) allow both direct and indirect initiatives.

A referendum (sometimes "popular referendum") is a proposal to repeal a law that was previously enacted by the legislature, and that is placed on the ballot by citizen petition. A total of 24 states permit referendums, most of them states that also permit initiatives. Although the Progressives considered the referendum as important as the initiative, in practice, referendums are fairly rare, especially compared to initiatives.

A legislative measure or legislative proposition (or sometimes "referred" measure) is a proposal placed on the ballot by the legislature. All states permit legislative measures (list) and all states except for Delaware require constitutional amendments to be approved by the voters at large. In some states, legislatures place nonbinding advisory measures on the ballot. Legislative measures are much more common than initiatives and referendums, and are about twice as likely to be approved. Some states, such as Florida, also allow certain commissions to refer measures to the ballot.

There is no provision for any sort of ballot proposition at the national level in the United States.  However, the initiative and referendum are available in thousands of counties, cities and towns across the country and are utilized far more frequently than their statewide counterpart.

Click here for helpful handouts on the I&R process