An initiative (also known as a popular initiative ) is a type of direct democracy (along with the referendum and the recall ) in which citizens participate directly in governance, rather than indirectly by voting in elections. Initiatives allow citizens to propose a measure—either a statute or a constitutional amendment—by filing a petition with a specified number of valid signatures from registered voters. The measure is then subject to an up or down vote in the next election. The initiative is available in twenty-four states, about half of all U.S. cities, and in nations such as Ireland and Switzerland.
The initiative has existed in the United States since colonial times. It gained considerable popularity during the Progressive Era, when 83 percent of all states to adopt the initiative (20 of 24) did so between 1898 and 1918. Its emergence was closely tied to western populism, with 71 percent of initiative states (17 of 24) lying west of the Mississippi River.
The initiative was called upon frequently in the 1910s and 1920s, but its use slipped into a period of relative dormancy during the Great Depression. It recaptured the public’s imagination again in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13 in California, a controversial measure that cut the state’s property taxes in half. The political success of Proposition 13 spurred conservative interest groups and legislators to pursue tax-slashing measures in numerous other states, such as Oregon, Nevada, and Florida.
Proponents of initiatives argue that they provide a practical means for citizens to get results on issues that their elected leaders fail to address. They also claim that initiatives help to educate citizens about public policy and the democratic process. Critics point out, however, that the initiative may empower special interests at the expense of the general public. While narrow economic interests rarely have the resources to mount successful initiative campaigns independently, well-organized citizens’ groups may be able win passage of new laws at the expense of minorities, the poor, and other disadvantaged populations.
Beyond their direct effects on public policy through the creation of new laws, initiatives have myriad indirect effects on citizens, interest groups, and political parties. For citizens, they help to stimulate voter turnout, cultivate civic engagement, and enhance trust in government. Interest groups may threaten to propose an initiative if the legislature does not do its bidding on a particular subject, thus enhancing the influence of such groups in policy matters. Political parties may invoke ballot initiatives as a means to achieve broader electoral objectives. For example, during the 2004 presidential election, Republican Party officials proposed initiatives banning same-sex marriage in critical swing states as part of an effort to promote voter turnout among conservatives sympathetic to President George W. Bush. Although survey evidence suggests that the marriage initiatives may not have had the effect that Republicans intended in 2004, their continued use in the 2006 midterm elections indicates that political parties now see polarizing ballot initiatives as a staple in their electoral strategies.
The debate over whether the initiative is beneficial or detrimental to democracy is unlikely to abate in the foreseeable future. While it is unclear which specific interests are most advantaged or disadvantaged by the initiative’s existence, it is clear that savvy political actors will continue to invent ways to co-opt initiatives to advance their goals.
SEE ALSO Ballots; Democracy; Democracy, Representative and Participatory; Interest Groups and Interests; Progressives; Referendum; Voting
Boehmke, Frederick J. 2005. The Indirect Effect of Direct Legislation: How Institutions Shape Interest Group Systems. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Cronin, Thomas E. 1989. Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gerber, Elisabeth R. 1999. The Populist Paradox: Interest Group Influence and the Promise of Direct Legislation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Daniel A., and Caroline J. Tolbert. 2004. Educated by Initiative: The Effects of Direct Democracy on Citizens and Political Organizations in the American States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Smith, Daniel A., Matthew DeSantis, and Jason Kassel. 2006. Same-Sex Marriage Ballot Measures and the 2004 Presidential Election. State and Local Government Review 38 (2): 78–91.
Michael T. Heaney
INITIATIVE, the process by which citizens, rather than legislators, propose statutes or constitutional amendments and place them before voters for approval. The initiative is not applicable at the federal level because the U.S. Constitution vests all national legislative powers in Congress, but by 2001 twenty-four states and the District of Columbia allowed the process in some form. All jurisdictions require the proponent to gather signatures from state residents, usually 5 to 10 percent of the electorate, supporting a vote on the issue, and some regulate the nature or wording of the issue. Where the direct initiative is employed, the proposition goes directly on the ballot. In states with an indirect initiative, the proposal must be submitted first to the legislature, which may adopt it or send it to the voters, possibly with modifications.
The initiative grew out of the popular disenchantment with state legislatures that gave rise to the Populist and Progressive movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Reformers, angered by the influence of big business on government and what they saw as unresponsiveness and corruption among elected representatives, sought to restore "direct democracy" and allow the people to participate in policymaking and hold politicians accountable. From 1898 to 1918, nineteen states, beginning with South Dakota, provided for the initiative, and the process was one element of the Progressive Party platform of presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
From its first actual use in Oregon in 1904 until 2001, approximately 2,000 initiatives have appeared on state ballots, and voters approved about 40 percent of them. Initiative use is something of a regional phenomenon, as six states alone account for nearly two-thirds of its use—Oregon, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Arizona, and Washington, in that order. New or relatively young western states facing problems of economic development and political discontent were more likely to adopt the process, while strong political parties often blocked it in the East and South. There have been three periods of greatest use of the device: the 1910s, during the Progressive era; the 1930s, during the Great Depression and New Deal; and in the last two decades of the twentieth century. In all three periods, strong social movements arose questioning the ability of government to provide for public needs and calling for more democratic or populist reforms. Among recent initiative propositions there have been questions on taxation, term limits for elected officials, and public morality issues such as gambling, abortion, and gun control.
Advocates of the initiative argue that it represents a genuine forum for democratic participation in policy-making, operates as a safety valve for political discontent, and helps shape the agenda of public officials. Skeptics charge that it circumvents the more deliberative legislative process and allows well-organized and well-funded special interests to take advantage of impassioned, even irresponsible, public opinion, possibly to the detriment of minority groups. There is no clear correlation between the influence of money or the media and the outcome of a proposition, though initiative campaigns increasingly rely on professional polling and marketing services rather than on grassroots volunteers.
Bowler, Shaun, Todd Donovan, and Caroline J. Tolbert, eds. Citizens as Legislators: Direct Democracy in the United States. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.
Cronin, Thomas E. Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Ellis, Richard J. Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
in·i·ti·a·tive / iˈnish(ē)ətiv/ • n. 1. the ability to assess and initiate things independently: use your initiative, imagination, and common sense. 2. [in sing.] the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do: we have lost the initiative and allowed our opponents to dictate the subject. 3. an act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something: a new initiative against car crime. ∎ a proposal made by one nation to another in an attempt to improve relations: diplomatic initiatives to end the war | a Middle East peace initiative. 4. (the initiative) (esp. in some U.S. states and Switzerland) the right of citizens outside the legislature to originate legislation. PHRASES: on one's own initiative without being prompted by others. take (or seize) the initiative be the first to take action in a particular situation: antihunting groups have seized the initiative in the dispute.
Initiative is the practice by which legislation may be proposed and voted on directly by the people (rather than their representatives). Its adoption was an important element of the Progressive era political reform movement. Of some twenty states that now use the initiative all but Alaska adopted it before 1919. Initiative makes possible enactment of legislation that contravenes the class interest of politicians—such as tax reduction and limitation on public expenditure.
Restrictions on the initiative process, such as a requirement for an extraordinary majority to enact housing legislation, have been held to violate the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment when the Justices were convinced that the intent was to disadvantage racial minorities.
Although the people of a state may reserve a portion of the legislative power, they may not, by initiative, directly exercise powers (for example, ratification of amendments) conferred on the state legislatures by the federal Constitution.
Dennis J. Mahoney
A process of a participatory democracy that empowers the people to propose legislation and to enact or reject the laws at the polls independent of the lawmaking power of the governing body.
The purpose of an initiative, which is a type of election commenced and carried out by the people, is to permit the electorate to resolve questions where their elected representatives fail to do so or refuse to proceed with a change that the public desires.