Throughout our nation’s history, citizens and legislators alike have used ballot measures to shape public policy and public opinion in the states. This process of direct democracy has often proved more effective than the customary actions of a party, politician, interest group or deep-pocketed donor at addressing some of the most divisive topics in our history: including suffrage, prohibition, gay rights, the death penalty and marijuana. Despite their significant and lasting impact, ballot measures and the varied laws governing how they work can be daunting and complex. Which states allow the ballot initiative process? Not all do. Why are initiatives so popular in California, yet unavailable in New York? How do voters get measures placed on the ballot? None of this is simple or straightforward; in fact, many people now find the language used in these measures so confusing that they abstain from voting on them entirely. The origins of direct democracy in the United States date from the 1600s, when New England colonists debated and voted on ordinances and other issues during town hall meetings. This set the stage for legislative referrals, which, as their name implies, are measures referred to the ballot by a state legislature.
In 1778, citizens in Massachusetts were the first to attempt ratification of their state Constitution by a legislative referendum. Several other states followed suit in subsequent decades, and in 1857, Congress mandated that all changes to state constitutions for states entering the union after that year had to be approved by voters. Today, voters in 49 states, excluding Delaware, must vote on and approve legislatively referred constitutional amendments. These have become the most prominent type of measure seen on ballots in recent years, and they enable legislators to keep a finger on the pulse of the electorate.
Not all states, though, allow voters to weigh in on changes to state statutes and laws. Legislators in 23 states can refer changes to a state’s statutes to the ballot. As with constitutional amendments, voters can approve or reject only the laws that their legislature decides to place before them.