Ballot initiatives: Downside of uptick in voter turnout

If you are frustrated with gridlock and/or intransigence in your state legislature, as many voters are, one way to get your issue considered is to gather signatures and take your proposal directly to voters with a ballot initiative. But that grassroots process—which has proliferated in recent years, as you may have noticed by measuring the length of your November 2018 ballot—is becoming much more difficult in many states.

Currently, 24 states—mostly in the Western half of the country—enable citizens to bypass the legislature with ballot initiatives. Here’s a list of who allows what.

Requirements vary. In general, if you want the next statewide ballot to include, for example, an anti-gerrymandering proposal, or an increase in the tax on gasoline, or an amendment to your state’s constitution, you must get a minimum number of registered voters to sign petitions.

In most states where this direct-democracy process is available, the number of signatures required to qualify for inclusion on the ballot is pegged to the number of voters who voted in the most recent governor’s race.

And that’s the problem. Voter turnout is the key. Low turnout in a governor’s election makes it easier to get petition signatures in later elections. While high turnout—ironically, something that we normally view as a fundamental [small-d] democratic value—works against grassroots signature-gathering efforts.

Case in point: California

California offers an instructive example. To get an issue on the ballot in California, you must gather signatures equal to or greater than 8 percent of the number of ballots cast in the preceding gubernatorial election. In the 2014 election, only 30 percent of voters cast ballots. That meant that, in the next two election cycles (when there was no governor’s race scheduled), supporters of any ballot measure needed just 365,880 valid signatures. “The bar was so low,” reports The Hill, “that California’s ballots were inundated by initiatives: 15 citizen-sponsored ballot measures in 2016 and 8 more in 2018.”

But voters came out in much higher numbers in the 2018 election. “The result is that in 2020 and 2022, using the same 8 percent threshold, initiative supporters will need to collect more than 623,000 valid signatures, a 70 percent increase,” according to the Hill’s reporting.

Same story, different state

A similar scenario is playing out in other initiative-petition states. Here are some examples:


  • Valid signatures needed: 10 percent of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election for initiatives that would change state laws; 15 percent for initiatives that would amend the Arizona constitution.
  • Effect of 2018 voter turnout: 50% more voters cast ballots than in 2014. According to the Arizona Secretary of State, in 2020, initiatives for constitutional amendments will require 356,457 valid signatures.


  • Valid signatures needed: At least 5 percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for the office of Secretary of State in the previous general election.
  • Effect of 2018 voter turnout: 78 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2018, compared with 54 percent in 2014. That huge increase means than more than 26,000 additional signatures will be required for future initiatives to make it onto the ballot in 2020. [Colorado had the second-highest turnout in the U.S. during the 2018 midterms.]


  • Valid signatures needed: 15 percent of turnout in previous gubernatorial election. [The state has one of the highest thresholds in the country, and allows only 90 days to collect.]
  • Effect of 2018 voter turnout: 58 percent of registered voters cast ballots, the highest number in the past 20 years. The previous signature threshold was about 124,000. In 2020, petitioners will have to collect about 44 percent more signatures than before.

More signatures, more money

Getting signatures on statewide initiatives is not free. And the need for more signatures means a need for more money. According to Ballotpedia, the average cost to get one signature varies from state to state, but signature-gathering consulting firms [yes, they exist—it’s not all high-minded volunteers] charge about $6 per valid signature. So, for example, if you want to get signatures in Colorado in 2020, you’re going to need around an additional $156,000. [Most petition gatherers try to get approximately 75 percent more signatures than the requirement, in order to account for signatures that will inevitably be ruled invalid.]

The legislative-backlash factor

Some state legislators are ticked off about the uptick in ballot initiatives, and they’re working on placing more obstacles in the way. What we’re seeing is death by a thousand paper cuts, says Lauren Simpson, of Americans for a Better Utah, “making it incrementally more difficult for citizens to pass laws on their own through ballot initiatives Our legislature, as a whole, is uncomfortable with citizen ballot initiatives.”

  • In Michigan, a new law signed by the outgoing Republican governor limits the number of petition-drive signatures that can be collected in any single congressional district.
  • In Ohio, state legislators have been trying, since 2017, to pass a resolution that would raise the signature requirement to 12.5 percent for a constitutional amendment, and from 3 percent to 3.75 percent for statutory initiatives, with a 60 percent super-majority needed to pass either.
  • Florida is the only other state that requires more than a simple majority to adopt constitutional changes. Florida requires a 60 percent vote, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
  • Another Ohio lawmaker recently proposed a bill that would require that petitions could only be signed during the winter.
  • After three marijuana proposals passed in Utah in 2018, one state legislator filed a bill that would allow signature gathering and removal to go on simultaneously. Ballot initiative campaigns would have to turn in their signature packets every 14 days and county clerks would post them online.
  • And then there’s Illinois, where the petition process is so restrictive that only one citizen initiative has ever passed.

But, while legislative ploys may be devious and undemocratic, and while increased voter turnout has had the unintended consequence of raising the bar for citizen initiatives, at least this trend is happening in states where citizens have the option to get needed changes by grassroots efforts. In 26 other states, there’s no option at all for ballot measures, and no sign that politicians are eager to create one. That’s the biggest hurdle of all.