In U.S. politics, initiative and referendum is a process that allows citizens of many U.S. states to place new legislation on a popular ballot, or place laws recently passed by the legislature on the ballot, and vote on it.
Initiative and referendum, along with recall elections and popular primary elections, is one of the signature reforms of the Progressive Era.
It is written into the constitutions of several states, particularly in the Western United States.
The Progressive Era was one of reforms aimed at breaking the concentrated, some would say monopoly
, power of certain corporations
. Many Progressives felt that state legislatures
were part of this problem and that they were essentially "in the pocket" of certain wealthy interests. They sought a method to counter this – a way in which average persons could become directly involved in the political process. One of the methods they came up with was the initiative and referendum. Since 1904 till 2007 some 2231 statewide referenda initiated by citizens were held in the USA. 909 of these initiatives have been approved. Perhaps even greater is the number of such referenda called by state legislatures or mandatory - 600 compared to 311 civic initiatives in 2000-2007.
Types of initiatives and referendums
Initiatives and referendums -- collectively known as "ballot measures," "propositions," or simply "questions" -- differ from most legislation passed by representative democracies; ordinarily, an elected legislative body
develops and passes laws. Initiatives and referendums, by contrast, allow citizens to vote directly on legislation.
In many U.S. states, ballot measures may originate by several different processes:
- Initiative, in which any citizen or organization may gather a predetermined number of signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot. (These may be further divided into constitutional amendments and statutory initiatives. Statutory initiatives typically require fewer signatures to qualify for the ballot.)
- Popular Referendum, in which a predetermined number of signatures (typically lower than the number required for an initiative) qualifies a ballot measure repealing a specific act of the legislature.
- Legislative referral (aka "legislative referendum"), in which the legislature puts proposed legislation up for popular vote (either voluntarily or, in the case of a constitutional amendment, as a necessary part of the procedure.)
Objections to the system
This process has many critics. Conservatives
often state that it undermines the entire concept of representative government; namely that the voters are to elect representatives to make law on their behalf and not to do so directly themselves. Liberals
generally find the process to have potential to threaten civil rights
and liberties, with some noting that polling
shows the First Amendment
and other bulwarks of constitutional freedom likely would not survive this process if they were to be subjected to it and that minority groups in particular could be subject to the whims and caprices of a majority. Other criticisms are that it results in provisions being added to constitutions that would be better subjects for the more flexible statutory law, which can be more easily revised to fit changing circumstances, and that it clutters constitutions, which are supposed to be basic frameworks of government and not excessively detailed plans, with minutae, making them unwieldy. Many from both sides of the political spectrum further feel that lawmaking is best left to legislators, who presumably have a deeper interest in and more than a passing familiarity with issues and are best equipped to deal with them, a position which strikes "I & R" supporters as both anti-democratic
. A further criticism is that an excessive number of propositions makes ballots too long and too incomprehensible to voters with only an average or less interest in the process and makes the entire voting procedure take too long, with very long lines forming as voters attempt to read initiative after carefully-worded initiative. In response to this criticism, some jurisdictions place a limit on the number of initiatives which can be submitted to the voters at any one election. The metropolitan
charter of Nashville, Tennessee
, for example, limits the number of voter-sponsored initiatives which may be considered in any one election to two, a rather extreme example, but many other jurisdictions which have "I & R" as a part of their government have taken similar steps to limit it...