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Initiative Referendum And Recall

Initiative,  Referendum, and Recall

Some state constitutions provide for the processes called Initiative, Referendum, and Recall.  These procedures fall under the heading of Direct Democracy, or allowing the average citizen to reclaim some of the power otherwise held by politicians and increasing citizen participation in the political process.

Supporters of Direct Democracy suggest that these processes do not take away basic decision-making power from legislators and other elected officials, but simply allow for another form of checks and balances consistent with the Constitutional principle that the people retain the supreme political power in our democracy.   Others claim that these processes have many drawbacks and should be approached with caution.  There are often so many ballot initiatives at one time that the average citizen can not be well-informed on all of them, especially as many of them are contradictory to each other.  This situation is not helped by the campaigns on both sides of a ballot measure, through the use of slick advertising techniques, to persuade voters on the basis of imagery rather than on the merits of each issue.  These issues are also often driven by money rather than based on merit, and the well-funded initiative is frequently the winner.


The Initiative process can best be described as a process that enables citizens to bypass their state legislature and place proposed statutes on an election ballot.   The first state to adopt this procedure was South Dakota in 1898, and since then, 23 other states have adopted this practice.

There are two types of initiatives:  direct and indirect.  As the term implies, the direct process allows citizens to place measures directly on the election ballot.  The legislature retains some control in the indirect process, in that those elected officials are given a chance to act on the proposed measures prior to them going on the ballot.  In some states, the legislature may submit a competing measure that would appear on the ballot along with the original proposal.  States using indirect procedure are Maine, Massachusetts,  Michigan, Mississippi,  Nevada, and Ohio.   Citizens residing in Utah and Washington may select either the direct or indirect method. If enough valid signatures are obtained, the measure goes directly on the ballot, or in states with the indirect process,  the measure is sent to the legislature.   With some exceptions, the requirement for passage is a majority vote.

One of the most noteworthy examples of the ballot initiative was the success of Proposition 13, enacted by the voters of California in 1978.  This measure consequently was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1992 in the case of Nordlinger v. Hahn.  The passage of this measure resulted in a cap on property taxes in the state, reducing them by 57 percent.  This essentially set forth a taxpayer revolt in the rest of the nation, and other states allowing such ballot initiatives also passed similar measures.  It has even been suggested that the enactment of this proposition contributed greatly to the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.


The referendum also refers to a measure that appears on an election ballot.  There are three types of referenda:

  • Legislative,  whereby the Legislature refers a measure to the voters for approval, such as changes to the state constitution or bond issues or tax changes.  These types of referenda, permitted in all 50 states, are often less controversial than other types of referenda and generally have a higher approval record.
  • Popular, which allows citizen voters to approve or repeal an act of the Legislature.  This type of referendum is similar to the initiative in that both are triggered by petitions, and voters have to gather sufficient signatures to demand a popular vote for the law to be enacted by the Legislature.   During the time between passage of the law and the popular vote, the law may not take effect.  If voters approve the law, it takes effect as scheduled.  If voters reject the law, it does not take effect.  Twenty-four states have this type of popular referendum.   
  • Advisory, which is rarely used.  The governor or the Legislature, depending on the particular state, may place a question on the ballot to gauge public opinion, and the results of the voting are not binding.  An example of the advisory referendum occurred in the state of Rhode Island in 2002, when the governor placed such a referendum on the ballot asking citizens if they wanted to change the state constitution to make the three branches of the state government co-equal.   The citizens voted in favor of the measure, but the result was not binding, and the governor and the legislature were not required to take action.     


Simply stated, recall is the political mechanism that allows citizens to remove and replace a public official before the end of a term in office.  This differs from the impeachment process, which is a legal procedure, while recall is a political device.

Most states allow for this recall process, and no specific grounds for recall are required.   Depending on the state involved, an appropriate number of registered voter signatures are required for a recall petition.  The recall ballot, for example, in the state of California has two components: a straight yes or no vote for recall; and a list of names of replacement candidates selected by the nomination process used in regular elections.  The recall measure itself is successful if it passes by a majority of votes.   In that case, the replacement candidate with a majority of votes is elected to the office.  If the recall measure itself fails, then the replacement candidate votes are ignored.  This process is only one of several means for removing corrupt or otherwise non-performing elected officials, the others being the criminal process, impeachment, term limits, or the next election.

A recent notable example of this recall process in action was the replacement of California Governor Gray Davis by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.  While the intent of this action was serious, it was accompanied by some amusement on the part of California voters and the nation in general, as a rather interesting and diverse assortment of personalities appeared on the recall ballot as potential replacement candidates for Gray Davis.

While many recalls of elected officials are attempted, few actually succeed.  Again,  to use the state of California as an example, all governors in the last 30 years have faced some type of recall attempt, but only the one against Gray Davis succeeded.  As for state legislators, only four have actually been recalled over the last 100 years or so.  Recall efforts against officials at the local level have been more successful. 

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