Brief # 163: Civil Rights

Republicans Introducing State Bills, Restricting the Citizen Ballot Initiative and Popular Referendum Process

Rodney A. Maggay


May 31, 2021

Policy Summary:

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Populist and Labor Movements in the United States helped usher in reforms, such as referendums and initiatives, that paved the way for direct democracy mechanisms to be implemented in a number of states.

The referendum allows a ballot measure to be placed, with a minimum number of signatures, on the voting ballot for the citizens of a state to vote whether to repeal or keep a state law. Initiatives are measures which permit, with a minimum number of signatures, an issue to be placed on a future ballot to be voted on by the citizens of the state. Initiatives vary by state with some allowing for initiatives only for state constitutional amendments or for state statutes (some states permit the initiative for both) while some permit the initiative to be placed on the ballot if the state legislature does not pass the measure. The purpose of these initiatives is to give citizens a way to directly suggest and approve constitutional amendments or new state laws that might otherwise not be considered at all by unresponsive state legislators. While the details vary, every state now has some form of initiative and referendum process that permits citizens to approve or deny new amendments and new state laws.

In Arizona, Republican state representative Tim Dunn introduced a resolution that sought to increase the threshold for a ballot initiative to pass from a majority to 55% of the vote. In Mississippi last week, the state Supreme Court completely invalidated the entire state ballot initiative process in a case involving the state medical marijuana program. Gov. DeSantis of Florida recently signed legislation that limits the amount of contributions a person may make to a ballot initiative campaign among other technical requirements, such as limiting how many signatures can appear on a single sheet of paper. In South Dakota, Republicans limited the time period to collect signatures to cold winter months and required that canvassers could only wear state issued identification when collecting signatures. And finally in Missouri, Republicans sponsored bills that increased the number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot and increased the threshold for a ballot initiative to be approved, up from a majority to two – thirds of votes cast for a ballot initiative. LEARN MORE 

Policy Analysis:

The initiative and referendum process has been around since the beginning of the twentieth century in the U.S. and is an important tool for citizens to participate directly in a democracy. When state legislators are unresponsive or slow to act on the desire of their constituents and the entire electorate the ability to put issues up for direct approval or not by citizens has proven to be a valued tool. The initiative has been used for both sides of issues ranging from minimum wage, medical marijuana and gun rights. In California, two of the most famous propositions included Proposition 8 in 2008 which banned same – sex marriages (before being overturned later) and Proposition 13 in 1978 which capped property tax rates in the state. So why are Republicans introducing bills to restrict the initiative and referendum laws in their states?

The easiest and most logical answer is because Republicans and conservatives are trying to stem certain policies that are popular with young and progressive voters. These are policies that are sweeping the nation and conservatives are starting to acknowledge that many, likely a majority of citizens, support these policies that are in opposition to traditional Republican and conservative social policies. State legislators can no longer ignore citizens by refusing to bring issues for a vote in their legislative chamber. Increasing the minimum wage has long been a desired Democratic policy so instead of waiting for something to happen in a traditionally red state the initiative has been a way to connect with voters who might be open to supporting the issue. Marijuana is no longer seen as a dangerous drug but something that has medicinal benefits. But older, conservative voters are still opposed to the issue and so the ballot initiative is a way to directly appeal to voters who are slowly coming around to acceptance of medical marijuana.

While Mississippi in a state supreme court ruling completely took down their state’s initiative and referendum process, the  restrictions and limitations in other states illustrate that those states are simply trying to make it harder to place issues on the ballot for no conceivable reason. There have been no instances of fraud. Limiting contributions serves no purpose whatsoever. Nor does increasing the number of signatures or the threshold number of votes to pass on the ballot. What this trend shows is that Republicans and conservatives are simply trying to cut off an avenue for innovative new proposals that they disagree with to pass. Citizens have been using the initiative and the referendum process for more than a century now and there have rarely, if ever, been problems. It is only when important issues have widespread support do these state bills limiting the use of the initiative and referendum process start to appear in state legislatures around the country. For the Republicans to offer anti – initiative and referendum bills at the same time they are offering voter suppression bills sends a mixed message about Republicans and if they truly stand for the democratic process. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources:

National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) – breakdown of the initiative and referendums available by states.

Ballot Initiative and Strategy Center (BISC) – webpage of center working to utilize ballot initiatives to energize minority communities and a new progressive base.


This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact

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