Initiatives and Referendums

October 22, 1982

Report Outline
Direct Legislation
1982 Ballot Measures
Historical Perspective
Focus on the Future
Special Focus

Direct Legislation

Renewed Interest in Direct Democracy

On nov. 2, voters across the country will go to the polls to choose their legislative representatives. But in 42 states and the District of Columbia, the electorate will be voting not only for legislators, but on legislation itself. The processes of referendum and initiative will allow voters in those areas to literally take the law into their own hands.

Referendums, available in some form in every state except Delaware, are statutes or state constitutional amendments that have been approved by the state legislature, but which are submitted to the voters for approval before they take effect. Initiatives, permitted in 23 states and the District of Columbia, are statutes or constitutional amendments that are placed directly on the ballot by voter petition. This year citizens across the country will vote on 52 initiatives, the greatest number since 1932, and over 180 referendums.

The popularity of referendums and initiatives—the most common examples of direct democracy in the United States—has risen and fallen over the years. But recently, there has been an upswing in initiative activity which many observers attribute to anger over government actions or inaction. “According to this theory,” wrote David D. Schmidt, editor of Initiative News Report, “citizens who have lost faith in the ability of government and other institutions to solve the nation's problems have turned to the initiative process to effect the necessary changes themselves.” Others attribute the recent increase to the growth of special-interest groups, “By utilizing the initiative process, single-issue and other groups, at minimal expense, can place a proposal on the ballot without even approaching any legislator or council member who might not be sympathetic to the cause,” Elaine Goldman wrote in the Public Affairs Review.

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