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Initiative: When the Legislatures Don't Make the Right Laws

The initiative is a democratic procedure that allows laws or amendments to be initiated directly by the voters. The practice dates back to ancient Greece. It appeared in America in 1777, when the Georgia state constitution provided a means to adopt amendments with the voters' consent. In 1898, South Dakota granted its voters the right to initiate all forms of legislation. The initiative is available today at the state, county, and local levels in many areas. An initiative, which can be drafted by anyone, generally requires the signatures of a specific percentage of the district’s registered voters, often between five and 15 percent, to qualify for the ballot. If sufficient signatures are received and verified, then the measure is placed on the ballot for the next scheduled election or at a special election. Two types of initiative exist:

  • Direct Initiative: A direct initiative is the standard form of this process. Interested parties prepare the initiative and collect the necessary signatures. If they are successful, the issue is placed on the ballot. If approved by the voters, the measure becomes law.
  • Indirect Initiative: Indirect initiatives (mandated in some localities) require that measures receiving a sufficient number of valid petition signatures are then submitted to the legislature for action. Usually, if the legislature fails to pass the proposed legislation, it is submitted to the electorate for final disposition; however, in other areas, the proposal dies if defeated in the legislature.
No provision exists for the use of the initiative in federal legislation.
The initiative, along with the referendum and recall, won public attention because of the Populist Party platforms of the 1890s. They were promoted as means to stimulate unresponsive government.