Initiatives enable citizens to gather a specific number of petition signatures to place a proposed law or constitutional amendment on the ballot.  Referenda are laws put on the ballot by the legislature that requires voter approval to become law.  Currently, New York has no initiative process, but the legislature can create referenda as outlined above to change the constitution.

The first state to adopt the initiative was South Dakota in 1898.  Since then, 2,547 state initiatives have been offered to voters since 1904 and 1,047 (41 percent) were approved.

Citizen initiatives started in the Progressive era in the early twentieth century:

At the dawn of the 20th century, progressive reformers wanted to exorcise the corruption and greed plaguing many state legislatures. These reformers saw the ballot initiative process as enabling ordinary citizens to shape public policy and regain power from the corporate interests, which were running roughshod over – or buying off – their elected officials. The activists also realized that the initiative process could have an “educative value,” by which placing measures on the ballot would encourage citizens to become more civically and politically engaged.

Over one hundred years later, New York is also concerned about the corruption and greed plaguing its legislatures and the interests running roughshod over our elected officials.

A century of data has given researchers enormous information about the impact of this form of direct democracy.  The progressive belief that “having plebiscites on policy issues would encourage citizens to become more politically engaged, thereby mitigating the declining state of civic affairs and public discourse” has to some degree succeeded:

“Over the past 25 years, states with the ballot initiative process have had higher voter participant than states without the process.  On average, each statewide initiative on the ballot increased a state’s turnout by almost 1% in presidential elections and almost 2% in midterm elections…”

Ballot initiatives also have had a positive impact on political reform in the states that offer it.  In fact, “US researchers have shown that US states that use the initiative process are more likely than those that do not, to have introduced governance reform policies (e.g., term limits, campaign finance controls).”

Criticisms of Citizen Initiatives

There are a number of common criticisms of citizen initiatives:

  • Initiatives might be poorly drafted which could mislead voters or undermine its legality
  • Initiatives may cover multiple issues, or even contradict each other on the same ballot.
  • Many initiatives on one ballot can overwhelm the voters
  • Initiatives can be passed without a clear idea of how it would be funded
  • Initiatives can be dominated by special interests spending unlimited money

The first four issues can be resolved by proper procedures.  For instance, Christopher A. Coury, a judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona, writing in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy suggests “all initiative petitions be submitted to legislative counsel for analysis and recommendations prior to distribution for signatures.”

Similarly, there can be a limit on the number of initiatives that appear on the ballot each year, and if two initiatives contradict each other, the one getting the most votes would take precedence.  Initiatives could also be required to cover only one issue and (if necessary) to include a funding mechanism.

The last issue, the unlimited spending of special interests, is now true for every election in the country.  Until the Supreme Court no longer equates spending money with free speech, this problem will overarch all our politics.  In this case, citizen initiatives, as very public exercises designed to create debate over months before a decision, might actually be more resistant to special interest domination than the day-to-day give and take of politics in Albany.