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Initiative Petition Process

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Written by Dr. Tomy Granzier-Nakajima
Published on December 21, 2022
Research Highlights

Twenty-four states have an initiative petition process.

There are many variations in the ways that states implement the initiative petition.

Higher signature thresholds and having a geographic requirement for signature collection have been shown to decrease the number of initiatives in a state.

The citizen initiative process allows voters to place proposed statutes and/or constitutional amendments directly on the ballot for popular vote. Twenty-four states have an initiative process — twenty-one states allow changes to statute and 18 states allow constitutional amendments (NCSL, n.d.) (Figure 1).

In a direct initiative petition system, the measure is placed on the ballot for a popular vote once the required number of signatures is collected. Missouri allows direct petitions for statute and constitutional amendments.

In an indirect initiative petition system, the initiative is referred to the state legislature once enough signatures are collected, where law-makers can either enact, amend, or defeat the measure. If the legislature does not enact the measure, proponents can pursue placement of the measure on the ballot for popular vote. In three states (Massachusetts, Ohio, and Utah), additional signatures from voters are required for the measure to go onto the ballot.

Washington and Utah allow petitioners to submit both direct and indirect petitions (NCSL, n.d.). Nevada, Michigan, and Ohio have indirect petitions for statute and direct petitions for constitutional amendments.

Figure 1. States with direct (gold), indirect (navy), and both types (green) of initiative petition process. Figure created with data from NCSL, n.d.

 

Petition Application Process

Initiative petition applications are filed with the state before collecting signatures. States vary in the level of review that petitions undergo. Seventeen states require at least one government official to draft or review the title and summary of a petition (NCSL, 2022).

Single Subject Rule. Fifteen states, including Missouri, require initiative petitions to follow a single-subject rule (NCSL, 2022).

Other Subject Restrictions. Seventeen states have subject matter restrictions other than the single subject rule. These restrictions vary across states, and may include restrictions on religion, the judiciary, the state’s Bill of Rights, taxes, and revenue expenditures. More information can be found at the NCSL website.

In Missouri, the secretary of state prepares a petition summary that must be approved by the attorney general (RSMo 116.334). Initiatives must follow the single subject rule (MO Const. III Section 50) and cannot be used for the appropriation of money, other than new revenues which are created and provided for (MO Const. III Section 51).

Signature Collection

Those who physically go out and collect signatures for a petition are known as circulators. There are different requirements for circulators, but common requirements include that they must be at least 18 years old, a citizen, a registered voter, and that they must be a resident of the state (NCSL, 2022).

Circulator Payment. Several states have tried to ban payment for circulators on a per signature basis, or payment of circulators in general (NCSL, 2022). However, several of these bans failed when confronted in the courts (e.g., On Our Terms'97 Pac v. Secretary of State, Maine). Statutes that allow or require paying circulators per signature have also been overturned.

Signature Requirements. Signature requirements to place a petition on the ballot vary by state. On the low end, Massachusetts requires the number of signatures to equal 3% of the total votes cast for governor in the preceding state election (Galvin, 2021). On the high end, Wyoming requires the number of signatures to equal 15% of the total ballots cast in the previous general election (Const. Art. 3, § 52).

Some states (e.g., Alaska, Missouri, Nebraska) also have requirements that signatures represent a minimum geographic portion of the state. Higher signature requirements and a geographic region requirement have been shown to decrease the number of initiatives that appear in a state (Matsusaka, 2001).

In Missouri, circulators must be 18 years old, a registered voter, and cannot have been convicted of or plead guilty to crimes involving forgery (RSMo 116.080). For a petition to make it to the ballot, a petition proposing statutes must be signed by 5% of voters in two-thirds of the congressional districts, and 8% of voters in same amount of districts for constitutional amend-ments (MO Const. III Section 50).

Voting

Votes Required to Pass a Measure. Thirteen states including Missouri require a simple majority for a ballot measure to pass (NCSL, 2022). Other states have special rules. For instance, some states require supermajorities to pass constitutional amendments. Florida requires a two-thirds vote to pass amendments that propose a new tax or fee (FL Const. XI Section 7). Four states (Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Wyoming) require that in addition to a majority for a ballot measure to pass, the measure must be voted on by a certain percentage of total voters who voted in that election. More information can be found at the NCSL website.

If a measure fails, 17 states, including Missouri, do not have restrictions on when a measure may be attempted again. Seven states have explicit time limits before a measure can be tried again, ranging from one to five years.

For information on the impacts of initiative petitions see our Science Note: Initiative Petition Impacts

***This Note has been updated since its original publication. Previous versions are not up-to-date but can be accessed here: Version 1 (February 2022).

  • The former version of this Science Note also included a brief discussion of the referendum process in Missouri.
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