What are Ballot Measures?

A Ballot measure is a law, issue or topic placed on a statewide or municipal ballot in the United States for voters to decide through an election. This long-existing term is also known as ballot propositions.

There are various ballot measure categories across the United States, including those put on the ballot by citizen initiative petitions, referred to by the state legislature or local governing body and those put on the ballot by state law or constitutional requirement without the need for action from a legislature or governing body.

There are generally three types of ballot measures: initiatives, referendums and recalls.


Initiatives are proposals individuals make to enact new laws or change existing ones. To place an initiative on the ballot, a petition, or gathering a specified number of citizens’ signatures is required. Bypassing the conventional legislative procedure enables individuals or interest groups to directly propose policies they deem necessary. Initiatives can address various concerns related to the economy, society and the environment.

The initiative process is used in 24 states, of those states, 18 permit initiative proposals for constitutional amendments and 21 permit proposals of statutes. In most circumstances, the proposal is put on the ballot for a vote of the people (“direct initiative”) after a sufficient number of signatures have been gathered. In other situations, the plan is submitted to the legislature first and, if accepted by the legislature, is not put to a vote by the general public (referred to as an “indirect initiative”). Sixteen states permit direct initiatives for constitutional amendments while only two states permit indirect initiatives. Eleven states permit direct initiatives for statutes; seven states permit indirect initiatives, and Washington and Utah both permit direct and indirect initiatives.


A public petition to propose to abolish a prior law passed by the legislature on the ballot is known as a referendum (or “popular referendum”). Twenty-four states allow referendums, with the majority also allowing initiatives. Referendums are actions that allow voters to decide on current laws or policies. They are typically sparked when legislative action is contentious, or lawmakers seek the public’s opinion on a particular subject. Referendums can decide whether proposed legislation or policy changes are accepted or rejected. Despite the Progressive’s belief that the referendum was equally significant to the initiative, referendums are relatively infrequent compared to initiatives.


A legislative measure, legislative proposition or occasionally “referred” measure is a proposal the legislature puts on the ballot. Citizens can remove elected officials from office using recall procedures before their terms are up. This process is frequently used when there are accusations of wrongdoing, incompetence or authorities fail to perform their obligations. Voters can hold elected representatives responsible through recalls. All states allow legislative measures except for Delaware, requiring most voters to ratify constitutional modifications. Legislators in certain states put advisory measures on the ballot that are not binding. Initiatives and referendums are far less common than legislative actions, which are more likely to pass. Commissions’ referral of measures to the ballot is also permitted in other states, including Florida. The United States has no provision for any national ballot initiative. However, the initiative and referendum are used much more frequently than their statewide equivalent because they are available nationwide in hundreds of counties, cities and towns.

One key element of direct democracy is ballot measures, which give voters direct access to the legislative process and the ability to influence public policy. People can propose, adopt or reject laws and policies through initiatives, referendums and recalls, giving them more power and fostering an informed and involved electorate. While ballot initiatives have limitations, their relevance resides in their capacity to limit the influence of elected officials and promote new policies.

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