An excellent article from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center outlines some of the thinking that should be employed before proposing a ballot initiative. This includes ensuring that it is clearly framed and compelling to voters, and, critically, is it winnable, because if it is just ‘fighting the good fight’ then a ballot loss can concretize the opposing sentiment and set your cause back.
What is a ballot initiative?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of ballot initiatives, we want to break down the basics for you. A ballot initiative is a means by which a petition signed by a certain number of registered voters can bring about a public vote on a proposed statute or constitutional amendment. A ballot initiative is a great way of making legislation by public pressure or action. A ballot initiative starts with votes, whereas legislative referendum initiates from the legislature and goes to the public, to approve or reject the proposed legislation. There are many ways to get a ballot initiative up and running but it is likely that you will need to use supporter engagement toolkits to develop popular support and get enough petitions signed. Alternatively you will need to use political campaign software to develop your campaign and get out the vote on election day.
Ballot initiative strategy
So what strategy should be used to get your initiative on the statute books then?
Start early and use a political campaign software. Your job in the initial stages is to put in place the infrastructure on which your campaign can succeed. Political campaigns need to have a way of finding and activating supporters first and foremost. Supporters need to be connected to the campaign by some central dashboard so you can communicate with them and get them to take action for you, whether that is to go knock doors, find other supporters or to campaign online. Once you have your system of supporter management in place your software should be able to direct supporters to reach out into their communities and spread the campaign message, gather petitions and so on.
Engage supporters systematically
Use a systematic way of supporter engagement and building leadership at the local level. Supporter engagement means giving each supporter a mobile app so they can get notifications directly from the campaign and have tasks assigned to them. Systematic supporter engagement also means tracking what supporters are doing in their communities and seeing who is doing the best work, so everyone else can learn from that. A ballot initiative is simple, get petitions in and move to mobilization for election day and pressuring legislators. Systematic control of supporters and their actions is needed to achieve those two things. Without a system for engaging supporters actions do not get taken, Whatsapp groups become talking shops of opinions and ultimately the project cannot be ensured to succeed.
Get your petitions out of the way early. Petitions should not be left to the last minute or deadline day. Start early with door knocking or public stands to gather petitions from the community. It might be worth investing in a voter file for your area to find the most likely voters to sign. You can filter voter files by previous voting history and political affiliation which is a good start for likely voter targeting. It is important to have a professional approach in terms of outreach but also in terms of supporting materials, leaflets, branded t-shirts, social media campaigns and so on. If the petition is something that seems legitimate to the voter then the only barrier to them signing is whether they broadly agree with it.
Mobilize your supporters
Build your mobilization strategy for election day. Mobilizing your supporters will likely take two forms. Number one is getting them to reach out to legislators to make sure they know voters want this to happen and why. You can push social media posts or email templates down to your supporters by the canvassing app on your community software. Number two is getting out the vote which means identifying probable voters for election day and hitting them up in the weeks preceding with canvassing or phone or social media outreach. With a strong mobilization strategy you can effect change for your area with ballot initiatives.
In many ways, ballot initiatives are a direct form of democracy and there are two types:
Direct initiatives: proposed measure is placed directly on a ballot after being submitted by a certified petition
Indirect initiatives: the proposed measures is placed on a ballot for a popular vote only if it has first been rejected by the state legislature.
So what exactly does all this mean?
As it stands twenty-four states allow Ballot initiatives, which are a form of direct democracy
No two states have exactly the same requirements for qualifying initiatives to be placed on the ballot. Generally, however, the process includes these steps:
(1) preliminary filing of a proposed petition with a designated state official;
(2) review of the petition for conformance with statutory requirements and, in several states, a review of the language of the proposal;
(3) preparation of a ballot title and summary;
(4) circulation of the petition to obtain the required number of signatures of registered voters, usually a percentage of the votes cast for a statewide office in the preceding general election; and
(5) submission of the petitions to the state elections official, who must verify the number of signatures.
If enough valid signatures are obtained, the question goes on the ballot or, in states with the indirect process, is sent to the legislature.
Voting on Initiatives
Once an initiative is on the ballot, the general requirement for passage is a majority vote. Exceptions include Nebraska, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. Those states require a majority, provided the votes cast on the initiative equal a percentage of the total votes cast in the election: 35 percent in Nebraska, 30 percent in Massachusetts and 40 percent in Mississippi.
In Wyoming, an initiative must receive a majority of the total votes cast in a general election. For example, in Wyoming's 1996 general election the votes cast totaled 215,844-so that an initiative would have had to receive at least l07,923 votes to be passed. In Nevada, initiatives amending the constitution must receive a majority vote in two consecutive general elections.