What is a ballot measure?

Ballot measures, also known as ballot initiatives, are policy proposals that are placed before voters on their statewide or local ballot during an election. Ballot measures allow citizens to pass laws or amend their state constitutions directly at the ballot box instead of having their elected representatives decide on an issue for them through the legislative process. This is especially important when a state’s legislators have blocked popular legislation for political purposes. Ballot measures are an incredibly important and powerful tool — they allow people to take matters into their own hands and make meaningful change on issues they care about.

What is “direct democracy”?

Direct democracy is a form of self-governance where the public makes decisions on policy and laws collectively, rather than electing representatives to make decisions for them. Our system of electing members of Congress, state legislators, and city councilors is a form of indirect or representative democracy; although voters have a say in who they elect, their representatives are ultimately the ones who make policy decisions. Ballot measures are a form of direct democracy because they put a policy question before voters in a state or municipality, and if approved by voters, that policy becomes law.

How do ballot measures wind up on my ballot?

There are two ways that ballot measures end up in front of voters: legislative referral or citizen initiative. 

  • Legislative referral is when a state legislature decides to put a policy question before voters instead of passing a law themselves. Often, these are the legislature’s proposals to change the state constitution.
  • Citizen-initiated measures are when citizens place policy questions before voters independent of their legislature. To place a question on the ballot, citizens must file their language through an official process dictated by their jurisdiction. They must then collect a specified number of signatures from their fellow voters, who affirm that they would like to vote on the policy question at hand, and then turn those signatures in by a strict deadline. If the signatures are certified by state officials as meeting the requirements, the ballot measure will appear on voters’ ballots in an upcoming election.

Some states have what is called an indirect initiated ballot measure, whereby citizens go through the signature collection process but must wait for the legislature to take action on the proposed law first. If the state legislature does not pass the law or proposes an alternative, the question will appear on an upcoming ballot.

What happens after ballot measures are passed?

Once voters pass a ballot measure, it becomes a law, or part of the state constitution if the measure was a constitutional amendment. The actual text of the ballot measure can specify how and when the law should be implemented — for example, a ballot measure requiring a higher minimum wage might specify that it must go into effect on January 1 of the following year. In some cases, politicians who opposed a ballot measure will continue to fight against it even once it’s been passed, often by challenging the measure in court or by deliberately slowing down its implementation. When Missouri legislators threatened not to fund the Medicaid expansion law voters passed in 2020, the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Medicaid expansion was the law of the land and had to move forward. When voters pass the laws, and especially when they pass constitutional amendments, politicians have to listen — even if they don’t like it. 

Which states allow citizen-initiated ballot measures?

Ballot measure processes, timelines, and signature collection requirements vary significantly from state to state.  There is no federal law that determines how the process must work. Currently, 23 states and Washington D.C. allow some form of citizen-initiated ballot measures where people can take matters into their own hands and pass laws or amend state constitutions. Additionally, there are many more cities and counties that have processes and requirements for citizen-initiated measures. In some places, the ballot measure process has faced legal challenges and may currently be blocked or under review.

States with Citizen-Initiated Ballot Measures
Includes direct or indirect citizen-initiated legislation or constitutional amendments (Source)

Have ballot measures actually succeeded in changing policies?

Yes! Since its founding in 2016, the Fairness Project has won more than 30 ballot measure campaigns. Our successes have improved wages and benefits for workers, expanded health care access, secured reproductive freedom, protected direct democracy, and much more. Although the process to qualify and pass a ballot measure may seem long and complicated, winning ballot measures can yield some of the strongest and most durable policy victories in states where legislators are motivated by politics instead of acting in the best interests of their constituents. We’re committed to ensuring that ballot measures are an important part of a broad political strategy to create progress.

Are ballot measures partisan?

No. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Democrat, Republican, third party, or unaffiliated — you have the right to vote however you want on a ballot measure in your state or city. In fact, ballot measures are one of the most effective ways to get around partisan gridlock, because they allow people to decide directly on policies regardless of what games their politicians are playing.  

Why are some people trying to make it harder for citizens to use ballot measures?

Ballot measures have proven to be a very effective tool to create change. As a result, anti-democracy politicians and special interest groups are trying to disempower voters by limiting or eliminating ballot measures entirely. Corporate interest groups and political extremists know they are more likely to get what they want in backroom deals than in public debates where voters get to decide for themselves. This is why we’ve launched our Ballot Measure Rescue Campaign, which you can read more about here – because direct democracy is under attack. 

How does the Fairness Project support ballot measure campaigns?

The Fairness Project supports ballot measure campaigns that have the potential to create lasting, material change in working people’s lives. We work hand-in-hand with local coalitions and provide funding and technical assistance to ensure these critical campaigns qualify for the ballot and win. To date, the campaigns we’ve supported have impacted the lives of more than 18 million people in more than a dozen states.

How can I help ballot measure efforts in my state?

We’re so glad you asked! One of the most important things you can do is find out what ballot measures are coming up in the next election and speak to your friends and family about them to make sure those in your community are informed. You can see a sample ballot and find out which ballot measures you’ll be voting on here. Make sure that people know they should fill out their entire ballot, not just the candidate section. 

Click here to learn about the campaigns the Fairness Project is currently supporting. Additionally, you can sign up in the form below to receive updates from the Fairness Project, including ways to get involved in our campaigns. If you’re someone working to get a ballot measure qualified and want to get in touch with our campaigns team, you can reach out to us here

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