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Quick Overview of the Initiative and Referendum Process

Cynthia Allen

Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Quick Overview of the Initiative and Referendum Process


Referendums and initiatives are an important part of the political process that almost every eligible voter in a state can participate in and impact. In the simplest of terms, a voter who is passionate about a particular issue can collect signatures from other registered voters in the state who support the issue in question, and then send in the appropriate amount of signatures to the state in order to have the issue placed "on the ballot" for the next election.


Link to the 50 state chart of recent issues


 It sounds simple, but it is also a very complex process depending upon which state you live. Do you think there should be a law that prohibits anyone from abandoning their dog or cat; and if so, do you think they should go to jail for 100 years? It sounds like a great idea, but before you start collecting signaturesóthere are several things that you should also consider:

  1. Does your proposed law conflict with any current law;

  2. If the purpose of the law is to prevent people from abandoning their dogs and cats, are there other options;

  3. Is this an issue that you feel would be supported by members of the community (if just for a local election) or is it a large enough problem that citizens of the state overall feel strongly about;

  4. What alternatives are there to a 100 year jail sentence, and is that sentence appropriate for the offense;

  5. What are the costs associated with implementing and enforcing such a law (i.e. where is the money going to come from and who will be in charge of seeing that the law is enforced); and finally,

  6. Are you eligible to vote in your state? If not, do you have the support of your parent or guardian to help you with the project? Many states only let you propose changes in the law if you are of legal voting age.

One of the greatest strengths of our country is the number of laws that have been enacted because of the tenacity of citizens who feel the legislature has failed to enact laws that are needed in the community. Citizen referendums have been instrumental in strengthening animal cruelty laws, banning animal fighting, limiting certain types of hunting practices, and protecting wild animals such as mustangs and gray wolves. However, many of these changes did not happen in a matter of months. Animal related referendums often take many years of hard work and persistence just to be placed on a ballot for vote; they can also be defeated in a matter of minutes by lobbyists, voters, or the legislature itself. And in the end, if the process of causing such change in your state or community is overwhelming, being informed and writing intelligent, thought provoking letters works. State legislators across the country listen to their constituents and care about their opinionsóletter writing is a powerful way to become involved if you have the right information. 

Click here to read a summary of the 2008 Animal-related Ballot Proposals

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