Every two years, citizens across the U.S. manage to place some eye-catching measures on state election ballots, posing questions to voters that can be divisive and sometimes historic. But more than half of states offer no such opportunity.
Twenty-four states — mostly in the Western half of the country — have ways for citizens to bypass the Legislature by gathering signatures and taking proposals directly to voters. In one of those states, Illinois, the process is so restrictive that only one citizen initiative has ever passed.
In the other 26 states, there’s no option for ballot measures — and no sign that politicians are eager to create one.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the first state to adopt the initiative process was South Dakota in 1898. Since then, 23 other states have followed suit, but none since Mississippi in 1992.
“Overall, the breakdown isn’t changing,” said Patrick Potyondy, the NCSL’s legislative policy specialist. “Whatever state you’re from, you think your process is normal.”
States with an initiative process include liberal bastions such as California and conservative strongholds such as Idaho. There’s similar diversity with non-initiative states, which include Republican-controlled Texas and Democratic-dominated New York.
In the 1970s and `80s, some leading Texas Republicans favored creating an initiative process, and until 1994 that stance was part of the state GOP’s platform. With Republicans in full control of state government since then, there’s been no serious discussion at the statehouse of allowing citizen initiatives.
“It hasn’t been talked about for 20 years,” said Republican Jerry Patterson, who served three terms as state land commissioner. “If you’re out of government, you’re in favor of initiatives. If you’re in government, they become not so appealing.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said the initiative process became entrenched in many Western states during the progressive area of the early 1900s.
“It was part of the reaction to political party corruption to allow citizens to directly offer initiatives,” he said. “Texas has always been more skeptical of citizen involvement. … The lawmakers and lobbyists think the deals they cut are preferable to any decision the voters might make.”
At New York’s statehouse, there’s been little serious discussion of the initiative process since Republican George Pataki touted the concept during his tenure as governor from 1995 to 2006. With the Legislature and major labor unions opposing any change, it would likely take a constitutional convention to allow it, but 83 percent of voters in 2016 rejected holding such a convention.
Likewise, in the states that allow citizen initiatives, there’s been no serious talk of abandoning the process. But political battles have been waged over efforts to restrict it.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013 vetoed a bill passed by his fellow Democrats in the Legislature that would have limited the use of paid circulators to collect signatures for proposed ballot measures. Labor unions backed the bill, saying it would “prevent billionaires and wealthy corporations from hijacking the ballot initiative process.” Brown said the bill was flawed, but encouraged further efforts to improve the process.
In 2014, Brown signed a bill inviting groups that were promoting initiatives to work with lawmakers in the hopes they could strike a compromise and keep the measure off the ballot.
Because of its size and relatively accommodating initiative process, California has produced some of the most tumultuous and expensive ballot-measure campaigns.
Of the eight initiatives on California’s Nov. 6 ballot, the costliest thus far is a measure that would cap profits for dialysis clinics. A health care workers’ union has spent about $20 million to support the measure. Major dialysis providers and their allies have contributed about $100 million in opposition, seeking to prevent the measure from becoming a model for other states.
More than $35 million has been contributed by supporters and opponents of a proposal to repeal California’s gas tax.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, previously worked for a good-government advocacy group in California, giving her a clear picture of the states’ contrasting policies.
“I’ve worked in the two extreme examples of how much dysfunction there can be,” she said. “In California, there’s too much direct democracy and in New York there’s none. Neither is the right solution.”
“I came out of California feeling its initiatives were out of control — and now I’m nostalgic for them,” she added, recalling instances when California lawmakers would tackle difficult issues to defuse a potential initiative campaign.
Lerner expressed interest in a compromise proposal floated unsuccessfully about 20 years ago in Vermont. Called the Citizen Initiative, it would have enabled voters — if they gathered enough signatures — to put a policy proposal before the Legislature and require an up or down vote on it.
Josh Altic, a ballot-measure expert at the online political encyclopedia Ballotpedia, said the high spending on initiatives in California and elsewhere provides ammunition for critics of the process, who see it as vulnerable to powerful out-of-state forces.
“The narrative for those people is that this isn’t a grassroots process,” he said. “This is a process that’s easy to use for large wealthy interest groups and hard to use for the average citizen.”
California has placed more than 370 citizen initiatives on its ballot since adopting the process in 1911, with about one-third winning approval. In contrast, Illinois has voted on a policy-making initiative only once, in 1980, when voters reduced the Legislature’s size from 177 members to 118.
Initiatives in Illinois can be used only to change the structure and function of the Legislature, said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the state election board.
Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, said powerful politicians in non-initiative states generally don’t want to give citizens a means of bypassing lawmakers. But overall, he said, the initiative process is popular wherever it exists.
“It can be misused or manipulated — it can be a little silly at times,” he said. “But on the whole, it ends up being a positive avenue for voters to express themselves.”