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Initiative and Referendum

Initiative and Referendum

Initiative and referendum are two mechanisms by which the voters of a state can directly effectuate changes in the state law. Whether a particular state has an initiative process and/or a referendum process is determined by the constitution of the state. While the law varies from state to state, some generalizations may be made about the initiative and referendum processes. Some issues that have been involved in the initiative and referendum processes in the past have been:

  • legalization of marijuana;
  • expansion of gambling;
  • limitation of tax increases;
  • elimination of affirmative action programs;
  • banning late-term abortions; and
  • legalization of physician-assisted suicide .

Initiative Process

The initiative process allows voters to bypass the legislature and enact new laws, change existing laws, or make constitutional amendments. Typically, a voter or a group of voters acting on behalf of an organization will undertake the effort to move an initiative petition forward. In order to have the initiative petition submitted for a vote in a general election, the initiative petition must receive sufficient support from other voters in the state.

Referendum Process

The referendum process allows voters to reject legislation adopted by a legislature and to prevent the legislation from taking effect. The referendum process is similar to the initiative process.


The most widely recognized advantage of both processes is that the voter is empowered to make decisions on public policy issues. Both processes, however, are often criticized as undermining the representative form of government.

About half of the states in the United States have an initiative process, a referendum process, or both. As the constitutions of the various states differ, state law must be consulted for further details.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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