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How to Start a Ballot Initiative

3 min read
Working Together
Good Party Politics Team · Dec 13, 2023

Ballot initiatives are a form of citizen-led legislation, where individuals have the power to directly propose and shape laws. From the grassroots gathering of signatures to the final vote, this guide will examine the political influence and civic empowerment of successful ballot initiatives.

What Is a Ballot Initiative?

Ballot initiatives go by many names. You may have heard the concept referred to as a veto referendum, initiated state statute, or initiated constitutional amendment. In layman's terms, a ballot initiative is a process that allows citizens to take part in political activism by proposing amendments and collecting signatures for their proposals to be put on ballots for voters to decide. Starting a ballot initiative is a wonderful way to make your voice heard and to have a direct impact on the laws that govern us. In essence, a ballot initiative is the way regular citizens make laws happen.

Currently, there are only 26 states that allow for citizen-initiated ballot measures. Of those, 18 allow for initiated constitutional amendments, and 21 allow for initiated state statutes. New Mexico and Maryland are the only states that do not allow initiated statutes or amendments but do allow veto referendums.

Understanding Ballot Initiatives

Imagine you are at a big annual party. Every year at this party, they serve pizza, breadsticks, and salad. Suppose you do not like those particular food items, nor do a few other party guests. You go to each party guest and ask them if they would like a change in the menu. Those who say yes put their opinions to paper and everyone votes on what gets served. The food that gets the most votes is now the new dinner at each party!

While that scenario is a simplified version, the ballot initiative process is much the same. Whether it is for protecting the environment, improving education, or anything else you think could make a positive difference, starting a ballot initiative is a way that citizens can have a real impact in how our government, much like the party above, is run.

Terms to Know

Before diving into the details of how to start a ballot initiative, here are some key terms to help demystify the concept of ballot initiatives:

  • Ballot Measure: A ballot measure is a proposed law put before voters to decide on its passage or rejection. It is a direct democracy mechanism that allows citizens to have a say in the laws that govern them, outside of the often-limited options of the two-party system.

  • Initiative: An initiative is the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do.

  • Referendum: A referendum is a direct vote by eligible citizens in which voters can express their opinion on a specific political issue or proposed law.

The Political Process Through Citizen Participation

The democratic principle behind ballot initiatives is giving power back to the people. It’s based on the idea that regular citizens should have a say in legislative change.Through community empowerment, citizens can propose and vote on laws, promoting the spirit of direct democracy and ensuring that the voices of the people are heard. It’s another way to empower individuals and make sure their opinions and ideas are taken into account in the political decision-making process. Ballot initiatives are a key part of democratic participation and representation.


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Getting Started with Participatory Democracy

Starting a ballot initiative involves a few key steps. These steps can vary depending on your location, so it is important to research the specific requirements in your area. Here are several general steps to get you started:

  1. Research: Begin by researching the specific requirements and guidelines for your jurisdiction. Each state or county may have different rules and regulations.

  2. Drafting the Initiative: Create a clear and concise proposal for the new law or changes you would like to make. Make sure your proposal aligns with the legal framework and addresses a specific issue or concern.

  3. Gathering Signatures: Once you have your proposal, you’ll need to gather a certain number of signatures from registered voters. This demonstrates public support for your initiative. Be sure to follow the guidelines for signature collection, including any time limits and verification processes.

  4. Filing the Petition: Submit your proposal and collected signatures to the appropriate government agency or election office. They will review your submission to ensure it meets the necessary requirements.

  5. Review and Approval: If your proposal meets all the criteria, it will be placed on the ballot for the next election. This allows all eligible voters to vote on whether to pass or reject your proposed law. You can then engage in campaigning efforts to raise awareness and garner support for your initiative. This may involve voter outreach, public events, and digital media strategies.

The Democratic Process at Work

There are currently 26 states that allow ballot initiatives and referendums. The first to adopt the process was South Dakota, which adopted it in 1898. The most recent was Mississippi in 1992. The following states allow ballot initiatives:

  • Alaska

  • Arizona

  • Arkansas

  • California

  • Colorado

  • Florida

  • Idaho

  • Illinois

  • Maine

  • Maryland

  • Massachusetts

  • Michigan

  • Mississippi

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • Nebraska

  • Nevada

  • New Mexico

  • North Dakota

  • Ohio

  • Oklahoma

  • Oregon

  • South Dakota

  • Utah

  • Washington

  • Wyoming

Check the laws and regulations for your state, city, and county prior to starting your initiative as the regulations are different for each area.

Examples of Successful Ballot Initiatives

Through community organizing, citizens have practiced political activism and changed democratic governance. Social change takes civic engagement and community involvement to be truly successful. Through community activism, successful initiatives change local governance.

2023 Successful State Ballot Measures

  • In Wisconsin, Statewide Question 1 would redefine whether a court can place conditions upon a person’s release from jail prior to trial.

  • Louisiana passed Amendment 1 to prohibit state and local governments from using funds, goods, or services donated by foreign governments or nongovernmental sources for conducting elections unless allowed by the election code or general law.

  • Texas passed Proposition 10 which authorized the state legislature to provide for an ad valorem tax exemption on equipment and inventory manufactured by medical or biomedical companies.

2023 Successful Local Ballot Measures

  • Portland, Oregon passed Measure A and authorized a 5-year renewal of the Portland Children's Levy, a fund that invests in preventing childhood hunger, child abuse prevention and intervention, early childhood programs, after-school, summer, and mentoring programs, and foster care programs.

  • St. Paul, Minnesota’s Question 1 established a 1% sales tax for 20 years to fund repairs and improvements to streets, bridges, parks, and recreation facilities.

  • The City Council Term Limits Amendment in Tampa, Florida limits members of the Tampa City Council to serving four consecutive four-year terms beginning in 2027.

The Impact of Civic Initiatives

Citizen-led initiatives can have a significant impact on shaping policies and laws in local communities or even at a broader level. They allow ordinary citizens to directly participate in the democratic process by proposing and promoting changes to existing laws or introducing new ones. These initiatives give the people a voice and the opportunity to address issues important to them. 

Civic-led initiatives can address social issues, promote environmental conservation, advocate for human rights, and bring about changes in public policy. Some notable examples include initiatives that have:

  • Protected the Environment | 2016 | Proposition 67 | California: The banning of single-use plastic bags in retail stores

  • Legalized Marijuana | 2016 | Measure 5 | North Dakota: Legalized marijuana for medicinal use

  • Raised the Minimum Wage | 2016 | Proposition 206 | Arizona: Increased minimum wage and required paid sick leave

  • Expanded Access to Healthcare | 2006| Chapter 58 | Massachusetts: Provided subsides to make health care coverage more affordable

  • Protected LGBTQ+ Rights | 2012 | Question 6 | Maryland: Legalized same sex marriages

  • Implemented Stricter Gun Control Measures | 2018 | Initiative 1639 | Washington: Raised the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21

These initiatives empower citizens to make a difference and shape their communities.

Join a Community of Changemakers

Tired of the status quo in government and politics? Good Party’s growing community of volunteers and advocates is working to reform the dysfunction of America’s political systems, starting with one local community at a time. Become part of the movement by joining Good Party’s Discord community or signing up to become a volunteer.

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash


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Working Together
By Good Party Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.