What is Direct Democracy?
This category includes laws governing the initiative process, the legislative vehicle by which ordinary citizens can participate in direct democracy by bypassing legislators to put proposed laws on the ballot. It typically consists of a qualification process, where proposed legislation is presented to voters, and those who support the proposal can sign a petition to put the legislation on the ballot. Once a certain threshold of valid signatures is reached, all voters get to weigh in on Election Day. South Dakota was the first state to adopt it in the late 19th century. Today, 26 states have a statewide initiative process.
These attacks on the initiative process are usually preceded by a successful citizen’s initiative passing a widely popular reform that the ruling party opposed.
Why are we tracking it?
The initiative process plays an important role in giving voters a direct role in lawmaking, and is one of the main vehicles election reformers use to pass structural reforms that legislators won’t. In this report, we track laws that propose substantial changes to the initiative process—from attempts to make the process of qualifying an initiative harder, to supermajority requirements for passage of initiatives, to amendments that improve or ease the process. We do not include smaller changes to components of the process, such as qualifications for signature gatherers or changes to the petition form. We realize these changes can present substantial new hurdles, but those are beyond the scope of this project.
Categories and definitions:
- New geographic distribution requirement: A geographic distribution requirement refers to the number of jurisdictions (usually counties or congressional districts) that petitions must be circulated in and signatures must be gathered from. A law with this label creates a new or higher geographic distribution requirement.
- Process modification: This label is an umbrella term referring to any law that substantially modifies the process for qualifying an initiative.
- New initiative process: A law that creates or re-establishes the citizen’s initiative process and supporting laws.
- Supermajority requirement: Any law that requires a ballot question to pass with more than 50%+1 support at the polls.
- Lowers signature requirements: A bill that reduces the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative for the ballot.
- Study committee: A bill that creates a committee of lawmakers tasked with researching and evaluating whether to create or reform the initiative process.
States with the most proposals:
Proposals passing only one chamber:
In recent years, we’ve written about the trend of lawmakers meddling with the citizen’s initiative process and this year was no exception. Twenty-two states introduced 58 bills about the initiative process, and the only ones that passed either undermined the accessibility of the initiative process or were neutral towards it. Even amidst these attacks, however, there were 28 bills filed in 9 states to create a statewide initiative process where they don’t currently exist. This was by far the biggest category of proposed bills, and fifteen of these proposals came from Mississippi alone.
Mississippi is a unique battleground for the right to keep and access the initiative process. The initiative process has been broken in that state since 2021, when the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a recently-passed marijuana initiative as unconstitutional. The Mississippi Constitution requires a fifth of signatures from each of the five congressional districts, but when the state lost a congressional district after the 2000 census it became mathematically impossible to comply with the letter of this requirement. The court left it to the legislature to amend the constitution and fix the language, but the legislature has failed to do so for the last two years in a row. This year, an attempt to bring back the initiative process showed promise, but the House and Senate could not agree on signature-gathering requirements and the legislation died.
➤ Direct Democracy by the numbers:
- 7 proposals with New geographic distribution requirements were introduced in 5 states (AR, ID, MO, OH, OK), all by Republicans in Republican trifecta states.
- The only one to pass was HB 1419 in Arkansas, which increased the number of counties where petitions must be circulated from 15 to 50.
- Idaho’s SJR 101 would’ve forced petition gatherers to circulate petitions in every county, as opposed to the current requirement of 18 out of 35 counties. This bill passed out of one house and had 29 cosponsors.
- In MO, lawmakers introduced a similar proposal (HJR 2) that would’ve increased signature requirements from 8% of legal voters in each of two-thirds of the congressional districts to 15% from every congressional district.
- 17 bills were introduced in 8 states (AR, CA, MO, MT, ND, OK, SD, UT) to Modify the Process generally or in multiple parts. 6 of these bills passed, and they either had a neutral or negative effect on accessing the initiative process.
- 16 bills were introduced by Republicans in Republican trifecta states
- 1 bill was introduced by Democrats in a Democratic trifecta state (CA)
- Montana passed a restriction on attempting any initiative that’s substantially similar to a defeated ballot issue from the past 4 years (SB 93)
- North Dakota passed a bill (SCR 4013) that now requires initiatives to be a single subject and requires all ballot measures to be voted on at both a primary and general election.
- Arkansas passed two new hurdles to its initiative process. The first was HB 1320, which gives the Attorney General more power to review, reject, or amend ballot titles of proposed initiatives if they deem the title “misleading”. The second (SB 377) targets signature gatherers, making it a misdemeanor office to change, erase, intentionally destroy, or alter a signature, pay someone for their signature, or misrepresent the purpose or effect of the petition. It also creates and regulates the growing role of petition blockers: individuals who are hired to prevent signatures from being collected.
- Missouri introduced 7 of the bills in this category, none passed, but the attacks ranged from requiring a photo ID to sign a petition (HB 704), increased signature requirements (HJR 25), to banning pay-per-signature gathering (SB 490).
- There were 28 bills to create an initiative process filed in 9 states (HI, IL, KY, MS, NJ, PA, RI, TX, WV); none passed, but two bills from MS passed one house.
- 19 of these bills were introduced in Republican trifecta states, 6 by Democrats, 1 by a bipartisan group, and 12 by Republicans
- 7 bills were introduced in Democratic trifecta states, 6 by Republicans and 1 by a Democrat
- 2 bills introduced in states with a divided government, both by Democrats
- MS is home to 15 of the 28 bills filed, and the target of advocates hoping to re-establish the initiative process there.
- There were 6 bills introducing a supermajority requirement in 4 states (AZ, MO, OH, OK); none passed, but two passed one house.
- All were introduced by Republicans, 3 in Republican trifecta states and 1 in a state with a divided government where the Governor is a Democrat, and the Legislature has a Republican majority.
- 5 of the 6 bills proposed a 60% supermajority, while one (MO HJR 43) proposed a 57% majority for constitutional amendments.
- One bill for a study committee was introduced by a Democrat in the Republican trifecta state of Louisiana, to establish a study committee tasked with exploring the creation of an initiative process. It did not receive a hearing.
- There was one bill to lower signature requirements introduced in a Republican trifecta state with bipartisan sponsorship – WY’s HJR 8 – that would’ve lowered signature requirements from 15% to 5% in at least 2/3 of the counties in the state.>
Another major battle wound up on the Ohio ballot in August of this year after the legislature referred an amendment that would’ve required a supermajority of 60% yes votes to pass an initiated statute or amendment. Supermajority questions have appeared on the ballot in 11 states over the last 5 years, and 5 other states introduced supermajority bills this year.
This year has also seen lawmakers limit access to the initiative process by raising the geographic distribution requirement for gathering signatures, meaning petitions must be circulated and signed in more counties or congressional districts. In turn, the cost of collecting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot goes up tremendously, and often prohibitively. There were 7 bills introduced to create new geographic distribution requirements, and in Arkansas, lawmakers passed HB 1419, which tripled the number of counties where petitions must be circulated and signed in order to qualify an initiative. Arkansas voters have repeatedly voted down attacks on their initiative process. In 2020, voters rejected an amendment referred by the legislature (Issue 3) that would’ve increased the geographic distribution requirements, instituted a 60% supermajority, and eliminated the signature-curing period. In 2022, voters rejected again rejected a 60% supermajority question (Issue 2) by almost 60%.
These attacks on the initiative process are usually preceded by a successful citizen’s initiative passing a widely popular reform that the ruling party opposed. In Missouri, ten bills were proposed to undermine the initiative process this year, on the heels of voters approving recreational marijuana in 2022 and expanding Medicaid alongside approving redistricting reform in 2020. Oklahoma had four bills imposing new hurdles on the initiative process this year, also after voters recently approved medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion. Arkansas also saw four attacks on the initiative process this year, after voters passed an $11 minimum wage in 2018 and after lawmakers kept several popular initiative proposals off the ballot in recent years (as their process allows, with the Attorney General exercising a lot of discretion in the qualification process).
23 Initiative and Referendum Institute, State-by-State List of Initiative and Referendum Provisions.
24 Joseph and Kearney, RepresentUs, Attacks on Direct Democracy in the States.
25 Madeline Nolan, WAPT, New momentum for reinstating the ballot initiative, an issue that has languished for 2 years.
26 Emily Wagster Pettus, AP, Mississippi senator kills initiative plan, minus abortion.
27 See Joseph and Kearney, Attacks on Democracy in the States, above.
28 Ballotpedia, Missouri Amendment 3, Marijuana Legalization Initiative.
29 Ballotpedia, Missouri 2020 Ballot Measures.
30 Including campaigns RepresentUs supported in 2020 for independent redistricting and a top four RCV election system