US Ballot Measures

The U.S. has a long tradition of direct democracy to allow the legislative process to be more directly representative of, and overseen by, citizen’s interests and aspirations. To be more inclusive! The first state to adopt the statewide ballot measure provision in its constitution was Idaho 125 years ago. 25 years later 88% of the states in the country had amended their constitution to allow for this form of direct democracy. Over time ballot measures have continued to be a popular means of letting citizens vote directly on new legislation and not rely exclusively on their representatives. Last November 8th, along with voting for the presidential ticket, 35 states in the country also voted on 162 state-wide ballot measures on a variety of specific policy issues such as marijuana legalization, education reform, minimum wage, death penalty, gun control and voluntary euthanasia. 7 out of 10 of these were approved by popular vote.

But what explains adoption, evolution and trends of ballot measures across U.S. states? What explains direct participation? The lack of available research that looks at these measures through an inter-state comparative lens is astounding. There are discrepancies across states not just in the volume and themes of ballot measures passed over time but also in the very definition of ballot measure and the initiative process. Some states, such as California, have submitted a total of 1225 ballot measures since they were first put to vote in 1911. Others, such as Delaware, have not instituted the ballot measures provision till date. Minnesota (71.37%), Wisconsin (69.46%) and New Hampshire (67.84%) have experienced the highest levels of voter turnout for ballot measures from 1980-2012. Hawaii (39.94%) and Texas (41.67%) report some of the lowest voter turnout in the same period. Differences in direct participation across states have been unchanged over time. The accumulated number of ballot measures submitted since the provision was adopted in each state shows exactly the same geographic distribution pattern as the accumulated number submitted in the last 20 years only.

What can explain these differences in direct democracy? In this research initiative we look at the legal provisions that delineate these electoral processes in different states as well as try to explain spikes and lows in ballot measure activity through the historical context of political, economic and social events that could shed some light onto our quest for the underlying forces and sources of direct democracy. We also look into variation of demographics across states.

For more information on ARCx’s work on U.S. Ballot Measures read the following studies:

The Role of Direct Democracy in a Time of Divisiveness

Electoral Systems and the Democracy Gap in Southern Europe