Initiatives, Referendums Important in 2006 U.S. Elections

By Michelle Austein
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - In November, many voters will decide on more than their next leaders. They will weigh in on a variety of issues including how their taxes are spent or what rights their state constitutions guarantee.

As of July, more than 100 ballot measures, or items other than candidates nominated for office that appear on a ballot, will be presented to voters in 25 states, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute, part of the University of Southern California School of Law.

Ballot measures, including initiatives and referendums, give voters an opportunity to enact or repeal laws, endorse proposed laws, determine how funds will be raised or spent and approve or reject potential amendments to the state constitution. Some states also use ballot measures to seek the recall of an elected official, as in California, where in October 2003 voters decided that Governor Gray Davis should not remain in office. Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded Davis.

The most common ballot measures are initiatives, which in 24 states allow citizens to vote on proposals that have garnered a set number of signatures by on a petition. In eight states, petitions for legislative action first are submitted to the state legislature, which can choose to act on the petition or allow the voters to decide.

Each state has its own rules governing how ballot measures are placed on the ballot, but there are many common requirements. For example, each state has requirements about how many petition signatures are needed for the initiative to be placed on the ballot. The required number usually is based on a percentage of votes cast for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election. The average number of signatures required is 7.23 percent of those votes for a legislative initiative and 9.17 percent for a constitutional amendment, according to the institute.

Between 1904 and 2005, 2,153 initiatives have appeared on state ballots; 41 percent of those were approved by the voters, according to the institute's data. The average number of ballot measures has increased over the past 20 years, said John Matsusaka, president of the institute, in an interview with the Washington File.

Ballot measures often can be a good indicator of how strongly the electorate feels about an issue. If support for an issue turns out to be stronger than expected, state and national lawmakers would take notice, Matsusaka said. Because of the potential for national impact "some groups deliberately use the initiative process to jumpstart the legislative process and send signals to national lawmakers," he added. A ballot measure's popularity also could affect a race for political office by increasing voter participation.

There is no provision for nationwide ballot measures in the United States. Although many opinion polls show this would be popular, Matsusaka said, it would take an amendment to the U.S. Constitution for this to be an option.


The more than 100 propositions set to appear before voters during November's midterm elections will cover a wide range of topics including funding education, establishing lotteries and changing immigration laws.

The United States elects members of Congress every two years and a president every four years. Some states elect governors to four-year terms during midterm elections, which this year will be on November 7, 2006.

How states spend certain funds is an issue on which many citizens will vote. For example, Florida voters will consider an initiative that would require the state to use tobacco settlement money on a public relations campaign to prevent teen tobacco use. Several states are considering raising cigarette taxes and allocating that money to tobacco prevention and education.

Matsusaka said the most common issues appearing on ballots in 2006 are state constitutional amendments dealing with gay marriage and with eminent domain (the government’s right to seize private property). As of July, seven states will include measures on their ballots asking voters if they want marriage to be defined as between one man and one woman; one state ballot will offer a provision to authorize domestic partnerships that grant same-sex couples most of the legal rights of married couples. Seven states will have amendments on banning use of eminent domain for private purposes.

Among the more unusual ballot measures this election year is Arizona's Voter Renew Act initiative, which would award $1 million to a randomly chosen voter after each election as a way to encourage voter turnout.