State Ballot Proposals, Initiatives, and Referendums

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Brief Summary of the Initiative and Referendum Process
Cynthia Allen (2002; updated 2013)


Referendums and initiatives are an important part of the political process that almost every eligible voter in a state can participate in and impact. In the simplest of terms, a voter who is passionate about a particular issue can collect signatures from other registered voters in the state who support the issue in question, and then send in the appropriate amount of signatures to the state in order to have the issue placed "on the ballot" for the next election.

It sounds simple, but it is also a very complex process depending upon which state you live. Do you think there should be a law that prohibits anyone from abandoning their dog or cat; and if so, do you think they should go to jail for 100 years? It sounds like a great idea, but before you start collecting signatures—there are several things that you should also consider:

1. Does your proposed law conflict with any current law;

2. If the purpose of the law is to prevent people from abandoning their dogs and cats, are there other options;

3. Is this an issue that you feel would be supported by members of the community (if just for a local election) or is it a large enough problem that citizens of the state overall feel strongly about;

4. What alternatives are there to a 100 year jail sentence, and is that sentence appropriate for the offense;

5. What are the costs associated with implementing and enforcing such a law (i.e. where is the money going to come from and who will be in charge of seeing that the law is enforced); and finally,

6. Are you eligible to vote in your state? If not, do you have the support of your parent or guardian to help you with the project? Many states only let you propose changes in the law if you are of legal voting age.

One of the greatest strengths of our country is the number of laws that have been enacted because of the tenacity of citizens who feel the legislature has failed to enact laws that are needed in the community. Citizen referendums have been instrumental in strengthening animal cruelty laws, banning animal fighting, limiting certain types of hunting practices, and protecting wild animals such as mustangs and gray wolves. However, many of these changes did not happen in a matter of months. Animal related referendums often take many years of hard work and persistence just to be placed on a ballot for vote; they can also be defeated in a matter of minutes by lobbyists, voters, or the legislature itself. And in the end, if the process of causing such change in your state or community is overwhelming, being informed and writing intelligent, thought provoking letters works. State legislators across the country listen to their constituents and care about their opinions—letter writing is a powerful way to become involved if you have the right information. 


Overview of State Initiative Process
Cynthia Allen (2002; updated 2013)

Initiatives are essentially ballot measures or proposals that citizens petition to have placed on the ballot for a particular election.  Depending on the state requirements, citizens may have to collect a certain number of signatures in order for the measure to be placed on the ballot as well as following other requirements (such as timely submission and the form of the petition). 

The measure may involve a question to voters that may be used to create a law, an actual law (statute) upon which voters may accept or reject, a proposed constitutional amendment, or a change to existing law.  The types of initiative may be further subdivided depending on whether it can be directly submitted to the citizens or whether it must first be submitted to the state legislature.  In contrast, the referendum process is when the citizens of a state are given the opportunity to reject a law or constitutional amendment proposed by the legislature.  Citizens decide by voting on whether to adopt or reject the referendum.

Editor's Note:

The next tab gives a detailed chart of state animal-related initiatives, referendums, and ballot proposals since 1998 with links to the text of the measures. It also categorizes these initiatives based on topic across the top.

For more details on the history of the initiative and referendum process for each state and nationally, go to the Initiative & Referendum Institute . You can also learn more about your state's specific process.


Related articles

Finding our Voice: Challenges and Opportunities for the Animal Law Community , Pamela D. Frasch, 14 Animal Law 1 (2007).

Related cases

Initiative and Referendum Institute v. Walker , 450 F.3d 1082 (10th Cir. 2006). Several plaintiffs - including six wildlife and animal advocacy groups, several state legislators and politicians, and more than a dozen individuals - bring a facial First Amendment challenge to the Utah constitution supermajority requirement for initiatives related to wildlife management. Plaintiffs argued that the provision imposed a “chilling effect” on the exercise of their First Amendment rights. The district court held the plaintiffs had standing, but dismissed the First Amendment claim because even though the rule made it more difficult to pass a wildlife initiative, the rule did not prohibit people from talking about the issues. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision and declined to follow a First Circuit opinion, which held that a state constitutional provision prohibiting ballot initiatives on a particular subject constitutes a restriction on speech subject to intermediate scrutiny (cert. denied: Initiative and Referendum Institute v. Herbert, 549 U.S. 1245 (2007)).

Citizens for Responsible Wildlife Management v. State , 71 P.3d 644 (Wash. 2003). A citizen groups filed a declaratory judgment action against the State of Washington seeking a determination that the 2000 initiative 713 barring use of body-gripping traps, sodium fluoroacetate, or sodium cyanide to trap or kill mammals was unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court found that appellants did not show beyond a reasonable doubt that Initiative 713 violated the constitution, and thus affirmed the superior court's denial of the summary judgment motion.  The court also held that the initiative was exempt from the constitutional provision prohibiting legislation that revises or amends other acts without setting them forth at full length.


Related laws

Related Links

To view animal-related ballot measures since 1892, see the National Conference of State Legislatures searchable State Ballot Measures Database at At this site, you can select your state, the topic "Animal Rights/Hunting & Fishing," and the range of years. This will display of summary of animal-related measures with data on whether the measure passed or failed. 

Initiative and Referendum (I & R) Institute at the University of Southern California  -

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