Intervention Profile: Ballot Initiatives

Ex­ec­u­tive summary

Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are a form of di­rect democ­racy in which cit­i­zens can gather sig­na­tures to qual­ify a pro­posed piece of leg­is­la­tion for the bal­lot, which is then sub­ject to a bind­ing up-or-down vote by the gen­eral elec­torate. Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are pos­si­ble in Switzer­land, Taiwan, many U.S. states and cities, and el­se­where. Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives ap­pear to main­tain sev­eral ad­van­tages over more tra­di­tional policy lob­by­ing, in­clud­ing lower bar­ri­ers to en­try and more di­rect con­trol over the fi­nal leg­is­la­tion. How­ever, the ul­ti­mate cost-effec­tive­ness of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign de­pends on sev­eral fac­tors, many of which are difficult to spec­ify pre­cisely. Although bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives hold enough promise to war­rant ad­di­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it is not yet pos­si­ble to say to what ex­tent bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns ought to be pur­sued by the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity.

In­tro­duc­tion and context

This post is the first[1] in Re­think Pri­ori­ties’ planned se­ries on us­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to ad­vance effec­tive al­tru­ist (EA) causes.[2] In this post we ex­plain what a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive is, what might fea­si­bly be ac­com­plished with bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, and why bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives de­serve at­ten­tion as a po­ten­tially effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion across a num­ber of differ­ent cause ar­eas. We offer some ba­sic de­tails on the bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess as well as some limi­ta­tions that any or­ga­ni­za­tion con­sid­er­ing a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive ought to be aware of. Fi­nally we out­line some ar­eas of fu­ture re­search that we and some like-minded groups in­tend to ex­plore.

To be clear, this post does not at­tempt to ar­gue that bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are a cost-effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion, ei­ther in gen­eral or for any par­tic­u­lar cause area. Such an ar­gu­ment would re­quire a more de­tailed anal­y­sis than we have as yet un­der­taken. Although we dis­cuss many past and po­ten­tial ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns, this dis­cus­sion should not be con­strued as an en­dorse­ment of the effec­tive­ness or even the pos­i­tive value of the ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns.[3] The goal of this post is to bring bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to the col­lec­tive at­ten­tion of the EA com­mu­nity to help pro­mote fu­ture re­search into the effec­tive­ness of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns for EA-al­igned poli­cies and move­ment-build­ing.

What is a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive?

Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are a way for or­di­nary cit­i­zens to di­rectly sug­gest and then vote on pro­posed leg­is­la­tion. A bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive is a ve­hi­cle for en­act­ing policy pro­pos­als that origi­nate out­side elected leg­is­la­tive bod­ies. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, in ju­ris­dic­tions that al­low bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, any cit­i­zen can sub­mit an ini­ti­a­tive, which, if it at­tracts the req­ui­site pop­u­lar sup­port and meets cer­tain le­gal re­quire­ments, is then placed on the bal­lot of an up­com­ing elec­tion. In broad terms, the pro­cess be­gins with the draft­ing of a pe­ti­tion. If the pe­ti­tion gar­ners the re­quired num­ber of voter sig­na­tures dur­ing some speci­fied time pe­riod, it is then put up for a di­rect and bind­ing[4] vote. If the mea­sure passes, it au­to­mat­i­cally be­comes law.[5] In this way bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives by­pass elected leg­is­la­tive bod­ies and are thus a form of di­rect democ­racy.

Ter­minol­ogy some­times varies by ju­ris­dic­tion and is of­ten con­fus­ing. A bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive should be dis­t­in­guished from a refer­en­dum, which is the pro­cess by which some piece of gov­ern­ment policy (ei­ther already en­acted or merely pro­posed) is put to the elec­torate for a gen­eral vote.[6] The key differ­ence is that refer­enda con­cern poli­cies origi­nally crafted by the gov­ern­ment whereas ini­ti­a­tives con­cern poli­cies crafted by the cit­i­zens them­selves.[7] Both ini­ti­a­tives and refer­enda re­sult in bal­lot mea­sures, which is the gen­eral term for policy pro­pos­als that are put to an elec­torate-wide vote (Mat­susaka 2018: 109). Ad­di­tion­ally, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives come in two forms: statu­tory ini­ti­a­tives and con­sti­tu­tional ini­ti­a­tives. A suc­cess­ful statu­tory ini­ti­a­tive changes the ju­ris­dic­tion’s laws while a suc­cess­ful con­sti­tu­tional ini­ti­a­tive changes the ju­ris­dic­tion’s con­sti­tu­tion.[8] Con­sti­tu­tional ini­ti­a­tives of­ten re­quire a su­per­ma­jor­ity to be ap­proved and, be­cause the changes be­come part of the ju­ris­dic­tion’s con­sti­tu­tion, are harder to be un­done.

Where are bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives pos­si­ble?

Although many coun­tries em­ploy some form of di­rect democ­racy, rel­a­tively few al­low and reg­u­larly uti­lize bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives in the sense de­scribed above. To our knowl­edge, there are at most a hand­ful of ex­am­ples of cit­i­zen-pro­posed ini­ti­a­tives in Africa and Ocea­nia. In Latin Amer­ica, Uruguay is the only coun­try that both al­lows and reg­u­larly uses bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives (Kauf­mann, Büchi, & Braun 2010: 219). In Asia, Taiwan is the most promi­nent coun­try to al­low and uti­lize bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, and ini­ti­a­tives in Taiwan only be­came fea­si­ble thanks to re­forms en­acted in De­cem­ber 2017, which sig­nifi­cantly low­ered the bar­ri­ers to get­ting an ini­ti­a­tive on the bal­lot.[9]

By a large mar­gin, the United States and Switzer­land lead the world in the use of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. 24 U.S. states and all 26 Swiss can­tons al­low bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives (Mat­susaka 2018: 110, 112).[10] Cal­ifor­nia has pro­duced many of the most widely-known bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, from 1978’s Prop 13, which capped the rate at which prop­erty taxes could in­crease and helped spur na­tion­wide hos­tility to tax­a­tion,[11] to 2008’s Prop 8, which re­stricted mar­riage to het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples and was later over­turned in fed­eral court.

Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are also pos­si­ble at the lo­cal level. At least 9,239 cities in the U.S. al­low some form of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive (Graves 2012: 11), rep­re­sent­ing about 54% of all U.S. mu­ni­ci­pal­ities and in­clud­ing ma­jor cities like Austin, Bal­ti­more, Cleve­land, Den­ver, Los An­ge­les, Phoenix, Port­land, San Fran­cisco, Seat­tle, St. Louis, and Wash­ing­ton D.C.

What can we ac­com­plish with bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives?

In this sec­tion we briefly de­scribe a num­ber of ways bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives could be used to fur­ther EA goals. To be clear, the sub­sec­tions be­low don’t rep­re­sent com­pre­hen­sive analy­ses of the cause ar­eas, and we don’t claim one way or the other that bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are a cost-effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion in these ar­eas. In­stead, we aim to start a col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tion about the use of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to ad­vance EA in­ter­ests in the hope that cost-effec­tive ini­ti­a­tives can even­tu­ally be iden­ti­fied. Also, we don’t con­tend that there is a con­sen­sus in EA about the value of these po­ten­tial ini­ti­a­tives. We’ve col­lected ex­am­ples from top­ics that have been dis­cussed in EA cir­cles, but some of those con­ver­sa­tions may be con­fused or premised on false as­sump­tions. Dis­cus­sion of a po­ten­tial bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive does not en­tail that we think the ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign would be cost-effec­tive or even that we think the ini­ti­a­tive’s suc­cess would be a good thing.

We’ve re­stricted our anal­y­sis to po­ten­tial ini­ti­a­tives that have at least a loose prece­dent of suc­cess in re­cent years. This re­stric­tion is use­ful for two rea­sons. First, it keeps the num­ber of ideas un­der con­sid­er­a­tion man­age­able. In many ju­ris­dic­tions, there are few limits on the con­tent of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, so ask­ing the ques­tion “What can we ac­com­plish with bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives?” is equiv­a­lent to ask­ing “What leg­is­la­tion would be good from an EA stand­point?” The lat­ter ques­tion is im­por­tant, but its scope is far too broad for the re­mit of this post. Se­cond, and more im­por­tant, this re­stric­tion serves as a rough tractabil­ity filter. Ini­ti­a­tive top­ics with a proven track record are more likely fea­si­ble than top­ics with­out such a track record.[12] Of course, even with this re­stric­tion in place, there are many more po­ten­tial ini­ti­a­tives than we’ve had the time and cre­ativity to imag­ine. As such, we would love to hear ad­di­tional sug­ges­tions from the com­mu­nity.

An­i­mal welfare

Farmed an­i­mal ad­vo­cates have scored a string of vic­to­ries over the last two decades us­ing the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess. In 2002, Florida vot­ers ap­proved Amend­ment 10, which banned ges­ta­tion crates. In 2006, Ari­zona vot­ers ap­proved Propo­si­tion 204, which banned both ges­ta­tion crates and veal crates. While the di­rect effects of these propo­si­tions were small (by some counts only around a thou­sand an­i­mals were ac­tu­ally af­fected), the in­di­rect effects were much larger. For ex­am­ple, thanks in large part to the suc­cess of Prop 204, in 2007 the Amer­i­can Veal As­so­ci­a­tion (AVA) adopted a re­s­olu­tion call­ing for all U.S. veal pro­duc­ers to tran­si­tion to group hous­ing meth­ods by the end of 2017. (Ac­cord­ing to the AVA, they have achieved that goal.) Per­haps more im­por­tantly, Amend­ment 10 and Prop 204 helped build mo­men­tum for the farmed an­i­mal welfare move­ment and es­tab­lished a prece­dent of suc­cess at the bal­lot box.[13]

The next ma­jor vic­tory was in Cal­ifor­nia, when vot­ers ap­proved the land­mark Propo­si­tion 2 in 2008. Prop 2 was de­signed to elimi­nate ges­ta­tion crates, veal crates,[14] and bat­tery cages, mark­ing the first time vot­ers were di­rectly asked to eval­u­ate the con­fine­ment of layer hens. With the pas­sage of Prop 2, Cal­ifor­nia egg pro­duc­ers wor­ried they would be un­able to com­pete with out-of-state pro­duc­ers us­ing the old, in­ten­sive sys­tem, so they made com­mon cause with an­i­mal welfare ad­vo­cates and lob­bied the state leg­is­la­ture to pass a law, AB 1437, man­dat­ing that out-of-state eggs sold in Cal­ifor­nia meet the same re­quire­ments as those that Prop 2 im­ple­mented for in-state eggs.[15] In this way, Prop 2 sparked a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about farmed an­i­mal welfare and helped set the stage for fu­ture suc­cess­ful cor­po­rate cage-free cam­paigns,[16] pre­cip­i­tat­ing na­tion­wide in­dus­try re­forms.[17]

Un­for­tu­nately, Prop 2 failed in its goal to elimi­nate bat­tery cages in Cal­ifor­nia. The bal­lot mea­sure called for hens to be able to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully ex­tend their limbs. Cal­ifor­nia reg­u­la­tors in­ter­preted this as al­low­ing for merely larger cages. And so in 2018 Cal­ifor­nia vot­ers were again asked to weigh in on the con­di­tions in which farmed an­i­mals are con­fined, this time in the form of Propo­si­tion 12. Prop 12 aimed to elimi­nate the am­bi­guity in Prop 2 by es­tab­lish­ing spe­cific min­i­mum square-footage for veal calves, breed­ing pigs, and layer hens and ban­ning the sale of an­i­mal prod­ucts that don’t meet those re­quire­ments.[18] (As be­fore, Prop 12 would also ap­ply to an­i­mal prod­ucts pro­duced in other states to be sold in Cal­ifor­nia.) The Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject sup­ported Prop 12 with a $4 mil­lion grant, and the mea­sure passed 63% to 37% on Novem­ber 6, 2018.

Look­ing for­ward, effec­tive an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions could co­or­di­nate with the Hu­mane So­ciety of the United States, which spear­headed these efforts, to at­tempt to put similar ini­ti­a­tives on the bal­lot in other promis­ing states. There is also in­ter­est­ing and am­bi­tious work be­ing done in Switzer­land. In 2019, an al­li­ance of an­i­mal rights groups and en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions led by Sen­tience Poli­tics sub­mit­ted enough sig­na­tures to get an ini­ti­a­tive propos­ing to end Swiss fac­tory farm­ing on the bal­lot of the next gen­eral elec­tion (ex­pected no later than 2023).[19] Fi­nally, an­i­mal welfare or­ga­ni­za­tions may also want to con­sider ini­ti­a­tives that in­crease the bur­den on fac­tory farms to treat their own waste, thus in­ter­nal­iz­ing an ex­ter­nal­ity and in­creas­ing the cost to pro­duce fac­tory-farmed prod­ucts.[20]

Elec­toral reform

The Cen­ter for Elec­tion Science (CES), an EA-al­igned or­ga­ni­za­tion en­dorsed by Will MacAskill and par­tially funded by the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject, uti­lizes lo­cal bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to cam­paign for ap­proval vot­ing. (Ap­proval vot­ing plau­si­bly im­proves in­sti­tu­tional de­ci­sion-mak­ing by re­duc­ing par­ti­san­ship and in­cen­tiviz­ing com­pro­mise.[21]) Last year a lo­cal group spon­sored by CES, Re­form Fargo, used the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess to get ap­proval vot­ing on the Novem­ber 2018 bal­lot, where it won 64-36. CES has now part­nered with an­other lo­cal group, St. Louis Ap­proves, and is work­ing with them to qual­ify an ap­proval vot­ing ini­ti­a­tive for the 2020 elec­tion.[22]

Cam­paign fi­nance re­form is an­other fre­quent bal­lot mea­sure tar­get. In re­cent years, sev­eral cities, in­clud­ing Den­ver, Bal­ti­more, and Seat­tle, have used the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess to cre­ate pub­lic cam­paign fi­nanc­ing sys­tems to re­duce the in­fluence of large donors on cam­paigns. In 2018, vot­ers in New York City opted to ex­pand a similar sys­tem, and in 2019 vot­ers in San Fran­cisco ap­proved a mea­sure in­creas­ing con­tri­bu­tion dis­claimers on poli­ti­cal ad­ver­tis­ing and re­strict­ing con­tri­bu­tions from in­di­vi­d­u­als with cer­tain lev­els of fi­nan­cial in­ter­est in city mat­ters. Cam­paign fi­nance re­form has been ten­ta­tively posited as an EA pri­or­ity, and if that’s right, then similar ini­ti­a­tives could be at­tempted in other cities.[23]

Other re­forms con­cern who can vote. Golden, Colorado re­cently voted on (and re­jected) an ini­ti­a­tive to give 16-and 17-year-olds the right to vote in mu­ni­ci­pal elec­tions. Some EAs be­lieve that em­pow­er­ing younger gen­er­a­tions may be an effec­tive way to im­prove the longterm fu­ture. If that’s right, then similar ini­ti­a­tives could be at­tempted in other cities.

Crim­i­nal justice

Ex­pand­ing the right to vote is not just a mat­ter of elec­toral re­form; it can also be an im­por­tant part of crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form. In 2018, Flori­di­ans ap­proved Florida Amend­ment 4, an ini­ti­a­tive to au­to­mat­i­cally re­store vot­ing rights to felons (ex­clud­ing those con­victed of mur­der or sex­ual vi­o­lence) upon com­ple­tion of their sen­tences.[24] The Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject sup­ported the ini­ti­a­tive with a $750,000 grant on the grounds that “in­creas­ing the poli­ti­cal and ad­vo­cacy power of formerly in­car­cer­ated peo­ple is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of strate­gies to safely re­duce in­car­cer­a­tion.”[25]

Florida Amend­ment 4 is not the first ini­ti­a­tive that Open Philan­thropy has sup­ported with the in­ten­tion of ad­vanc­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form. In April 2018 it granted $500,000 to sup­port the Re­form Jails and Com­mu­nity Rein­vest­ment Ini­ti­a­tive, a lo­cal ini­ti­a­tive that aims to re­duce the size of the prison pop­u­la­tion in Los An­ge­les County. Open Philan­thropy ar­gues that if passed, the ini­ti­a­tive would “re­duce re­ci­di­vism, pre­vent crime, and per­ma­nently re­duce the pop­u­la­tion of peo­ple cy­cling into and out of jail that are ex­pe­rienc­ing men­tal health, drug de­pen­dency, or chronic home­less­ness is­sues.” If that’s true, other coun­ties that both al­low bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives and host large prison pop­u­la­tions could be tar­geted with similar mea­sures.

Catas­trophic risk preparation

EAs in­ter­ested in re­duc­ing catas­trophic risk could use bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to po­ten­tially in­crease civ­i­liza­tion’s re­silience to global catas­tro­phe. Mem­bers of the catas­trophic risk com­mu­nity could model poli­cies on other dis­aster prepa­ra­tion ini­ti­a­tives, like Ore­gon’s 2002 seis­mic re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion mea­sure, which passed with 77% sup­port, or Cal­ifor­nia’s 2010 seis­mic retrofitting ini­ti­a­tive, which passed with 85% sup­port. It might be pos­si­ble, for ex­am­ple, to use bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to force gov­ern­ments to ex­plic­itly plan for food pro­duc­tion shocks, so­lar storms, pan­demics, vol­canic erup­tions, as­ter­oid im­pacts, and other calamities.

One ob­vi­ous type of global catas­tro­phe is nu­clear war. In the 1980s a raft of state-level nu­clear weapons ini­ti­a­tives were ap­proved. Most of these mea­sures were purely sym­bolic, such as 1982 ini­ti­a­tives in Alaska, Cal­ifor­nia, Ore­gon, and Wis­con­sin, urg­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate an in­ter­na­tional agree­ment to re­duce the num­ber of nu­clear war­heads and freeze test­ing of new nu­clear arms. But at least one mea­sure, North Dakota’s Limits on Nu­clear Weapons Ini­ti­a­tive, sought to limit the de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion of nu­clear weapons in the state. It passed with 58% sup­port, a non­triv­ial achieve­ment con­sid­er­ing that North Dakota at one time hosted hun­dreds of un­der­ground mis­sile silos and launch con­trol fa­cil­ities. None of these mea­sures ap­pear to have been par­tic­u­larly im­pact­ful, and the poli­ti­cal cli­mate of the 1980s is very differ­ent than to­day’s, but given pre­vi­ous suc­cess at the bal­lot box and EA in­ter­est in pre­vent­ing nu­clear war, it may be worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing what can be done in this area with bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives.

Another ob­vi­ous, if slow-mov­ing, global catas­tro­phe is cli­mate change. Cli­mate change ini­ti­a­tives are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. About a quar­ter of all statewide bal­lot mea­sures in 2018 were re­lated to car­bon emis­sions, re­new­able en­ergy, or offshore drilling, with mixed suc­cess. Ne­vada vot­ers ap­proved the Re­new­able En­ergy Stan­dards Ini­ti­a­tive, which re­quires elec­tric util­ities to ac­quire at least 50% of their elec­tric­ity from re­new­able re­sources by 2030. (Ari­zona vot­ers re­jected a similar pro­posal.) Wash­ing­ton vot­ers con­sid­ered and re­jected a statewide car­bon tax, vot­ing the mea­sure down 57% to 43%. Lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal mea­sures were also on the bal­lot in 2018. For ex­am­ple, vot­ers in Port­land, Ore­gon ap­proved an ini­ti­a­tive im­pos­ing a li­cens­ing fee on large re­tailers to pay for clean en­ergy pro­jects. In Switzer­land, Sen­tience Poli­tics has launched a num­ber of sus­tain­able nu­tri­tion ini­ti­a­tives at the city and can­ton level that would re­duce the car­bon foot­print of Swiss food con­sump­tion.[26] EAs in­ter­ested in cli­mate change could an­a­lyze the likely im­pact of these differ­ent types of cli­mate ini­ti­a­tives as well as their odds of suc­cess across ju­ris­dic­tions to help de­velop a cost-effec­tive­ness model of us­ing ini­ti­a­tives to com­bat cli­mate change.

In­trigu­ingly, one gen­eral-pur­pose catas­trophic risk prepa­ra­tion bal­lot mea­sure was re­cently ap­proved in Wash­ing­ton state. WA SJR 8200[27] sup­ports gov­ern­ment con­ti­nu­ity in case of dis­aster[28] by al­low­ing the leg­is­la­ture to pass tem­po­rary laws filling cer­tain va­cant pub­lic offices in the event of a catas­trophic in­ci­dent, even if those laws vi­o­late the state con­sti­tu­tion.[29] The mea­sure was ap­proved 65% to 35% in Novem­ber 2019. If mem­bers of the catas­trophic risk com­mu­nity deem such pro­vi­sions helpful, they could pur­sue similar changes in other re­gions. Given the mea­sure’s wide­spread sup­port, it’s plau­si­ble that it could be repli­cated in other states.

Global development

In ju­ris­dic­tions that main­tain global de­vel­op­ment bud­gets, ini­ti­a­tives can be used to in­crease those bud­gets and in­fluence the or­ga­ni­za­tions to which that aid is dis­bursed. For ex­am­ple, in 2016, the Effec­tive Altru­ism Foun­da­tion (EAF) launched an ini­ti­a­tive in Zurich, Switzer­land that would have re­quired the city to de­vote 1% of the city’s over­all bud­get to highly effec­tive global health char­i­ties. This change would have in­creased Zurich’s aid bud­get from roughly $2.5 mil­lion per year to roughly $87 mil­lion per year. EAF man­aged to qual­ify the ini­ti­a­tive for the bal­lot, but ini­tial re­sponses to the pro­posal were nega­tive. In­stead of re­tract­ing the pro­posal or see­ing it defeated at the next elec­tion, EAF worked with the city coun­cil to de­velop a coun­ter­pro­posal that could be added to the bal­lot in place of the origi­nal pro­posal. (This sort of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween ini­ti­a­tive spon­sors and city coun­cil mem­bers is stan­dard prac­tice in Switzer­land.) The coun­ter­pro­posal in­creased the for­eign aid bud­get by about $5 mil­lion, a far cry from the ini­tial pro­posal but still not an in­signifi­cant sum. The coun­ter­pro­posal also re­quired that aid grants be based on the available sci­en­tific ev­i­dence of cost-effec­tive­ness. In Novem­ber 2019, the cit­i­zens of Zurich had the op­por­tu­nity to vote on the coun­ter­pro­posal, and the mea­sure passed with 70% sup­port. Given the wide mar­gin of sup­port, it’s plau­si­ble that the effort could be repli­cated in other ju­ris­dic­tions.


Some EAs re­gard psychedelic use as a promis­ing in­ter­ven­tion, both in the short­term (to treat de­pres­sion, anx­iety, and ad­dic­tion) and in the longterm (as a way to in­crease the num­ber of well-in­ten­tioned and ca­pa­ble in­di­vi­d­u­als). If that’s right, then pro­po­nents of psychedelic use should con­sider at­tempt­ing to repli­cate the suc­cess of mar­ijuana de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion and le­gal­iza­tion ini­ti­a­tives. Of the eleven states in which recre­ational mar­ijuana use is le­gal, nine le­gal­ized mar­ijuana through bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives: Alaska (2014), Cal­ifor­nia (2016), Colorado (2012), Maine (2016), Mas­sachusetts (2016), Michi­gan (2018), Ne­vada (2016), Ore­gon (2014), and Wash­ing­ton (2012).[30] Psychedelic ini­ti­a­tives have already scored at least one vic­tory and at least one defeat. In 2018, a pro­posed ini­ti­a­tive de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing psilo­cy­bin in Cal­ifor­nia failed to col­lect enough sig­na­tures to qual­ify for the bal­lot. In May 2019, Den­ver vot­ers ap­proved a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing the pos­ses­sion and use of psilo­cy­bin mush­rooms. Vot­ers may have an­other chance to ex­press their views on psychedelics soon. A pro­posed ini­ti­a­tive that would le­gal­ize the ad­minis­tra­tion of psilo­cy­bin at li­censed fa­cil­ities in Ore­gon is cur­rently col­lect­ing sig­na­tures and may be on the bal­lot in 2020. Similar ini­ti­a­tives could be launched in other cities and states.

Lead poisoning

There is grow­ing ev­i­dence that child­hood lead ex­po­sure is cor­re­lated with a host of men­tal, phys­i­cal, and so­cial ills. Lead ex­po­sure has re­cently been ex­plored as an EA high-pri­or­ity cause area, and GiveWell has in­ves­ti­gated sup­port­ing cam­paigns against lead paint in South­east Asia. Although by the 1980s most Western na­tions had en­acted reg­u­la­tions on lead paint, lead poi­son­ing is still a se­ri­ous prob­lem in the U.S., with the crisis in Flint, Michi­gan the most high-pro­file—but by no means only—re­cent case. Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are one way to tackle this prob­lem. For ex­am­ple, a group in Cleve­land is work­ing on a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive that would re­duce lead ex­po­sure in day­care cen­ters and older rental prop­er­ties in the city. Similar ini­ti­a­tives could be launched in cities like Bal­ti­more and Philadelphia.

Re­search and development

Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives can be used to fund re­search and de­vel­op­ment in spe­cific ar­eas. For ex­am­ple, in 2004 Cal­ifor­nia vot­ers ap­proved Propo­si­tion 71, an ini­ti­ated con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that al­lo­cated $3 billion in gen­eral obli­ga­tion bonds to cre­ate the Cal­ifor­nia In­sti­tute for Re­gen­er­a­tive Medicine, which pro­motes stem cell re­search through grants and loans. Ad­mit­tedly, other R&D ini­ti­a­tives have had worse luck. A pro­posal to raise taxes on to­bacco prod­ucts in Cal­ifor­nia to fund can­cer re­search was nar­rowly defeated in 2012, and a pro­posal to spend $200 mil­lion on biomed­i­cal re­search in Mon­tana was hand­ily defeated in 2016. Nonethe­less, even these failed ini­ti­a­tives demon­strate the pos­si­bil­ity of putting re­search and de­vel­op­ment ques­tions di­rectly to vot­ers. Whether it’s ex­plor­ing al­ter­nate foods to pre­pare for global agri­cul­tural catas­tro­phes, study­ing the effects of psychedelics on ad­dic­tion, PTSD, and Alzheimer’s, or de­vel­op­ing new plant-based and cul­ti­vated meats, just about any cause area could po­ten­tially benefit from ad­di­tional re­search funds.

Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive advantages

In the pre­vi­ous sec­tion we dis­cussed some pos­si­ble ini­ti­a­tives that have the po­ten­tial to ad­vance EA cause ar­eas. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing, how­ever, that any policy pro­posal that can be put to vot­ers in the form of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive can also be con­sid­ered di­rectly by elected leg­is­la­tors. So the pre­vi­ous sec­tion doesn’t provide much of an ar­gu­ment for bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives per se (other than show­ing that some policy pro­pos­als that would ad­vance EA causes have a loose his­tory of ini­ti­a­tive suc­cess). Nonethe­less, we think there are at least three rea­sons why bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives in par­tic­u­lar are po­ten­tially a good in­ter­ven­tion for EA cause ar­eas.

Ini­ti­a­tives are prob­a­bly eas­ier than tra­di­tional lobbying

The first rea­son is that in many cases or­ga­niz­ing a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive may be eas­ier than lob­by­ing leg­is­la­tors to spon­sor a spe­cific pro­posal. Law­mak­ers do not have an un­limited ca­pac­ity to en­act leg­is­la­tion. There are only so many bills that they can rea­son­ably ex­pect to re­search, write, pro­mote, and shep­herd to law in a given elec­tion cy­cle. As a con­se­quence, law­mak­ers tend to fo­cus on the is­sues that are most salient to their con­stituents. Lob­by­ists can shift the fo­cus of law­mak­ers, but do­ing so is not nec­es­sar­ily easy. Forg­ing use­ful con­nec­tions with elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives takes time, money, and ex­per­tise. Newer or­ga­ni­za­tions are less likely to have the ex­pe­rience and re­sources nec­es­sary to in­fluence leg­is­la­tors. Lutz and Lutz 2011 ap­ply this point to an­i­mal rights leg­is­la­tion. They write, “Fa­mil­iar­ity and pre­vi­ous ac­cess to leg­is­la­tors are im­por­tant [...] It is note­wor­thy that some of the suc­cesses of an­i­mal rights groups have had to rely on pub­lic bal­lots and ini­ti­a­tives. The re­li­ance on the pub­lic ap­proach might re­flect the fact that the long-es­tab­lished agri­cul­tural in­ter­est groups are more adept at deal­ing with state leg­is­la­tors than the some­what newer an­i­mal rights groups” (272). Be­cause most EA-al­igned or­ga­ni­za­tions are ei­ther small, new, or both, they are un­likely to pos­sess the skills and con­nec­tions needed to suc­cess­fully per­suade leg­is­la­tors to sup­port EA-al­igned poli­cies. Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives may be a sim­pler method for pro­mot­ing such poli­cies in the short term.

Another po­ten­tial ad­van­tage of ini­ti­a­tives over lob­by­ing is that ini­ti­a­tive spon­sors have more con­trol over the even­tual law than lob­by­ists. When lob­by­ists at­tempt to in­fluence a leg­is­la­ture in the di­rec­tion of a cer­tain policy, they have to rely on what’s in­tro­duced by the most friendly leg­is­la­tor and then what sur­vives the leg­is­la­tive pro­cess. The fi­nal product may be far from ideal. With bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives, the ini­ti­a­tive spon­sors write the law di­rectly then sub­ject the pro­posed law to a bi­nary up-or-down vote. There is no amend­ment pro­cess or horse-trad­ing in­volved.[31] More­over, un­like leg­is­la­tive ad­vo­cacy, which can drag on in­definitely, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns come with a speci­fied end-date by which the is­sue is de­cided.

A fi­nal ad­van­tage of ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns over lob­by­ing is the sig­nal­ling value of hav­ing the pub­lic pass some­thing rather than the leg­is­la­ture. Public pas­sage of a policy may make the is­sue seem more real in terms of vot­ers’ lived ex­pe­riences as op­posed to strong ad­vo­cacy at the leg­is­la­tive level.[32] In ad­di­tion, pub­lic pas­sage of a policy avoids the per­ceived demo­cratic short­com­ings of­ten as­so­ci­ated with di­rect lob­by­ing, such as the re­volv­ing door be­tween the pri­vate sec­tor and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tory agen­cies charged with reg­u­lat­ing the pri­vate sec­tor.[33] It’s not clear that the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess is in fact more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple’s will than di­rect lob­by­ing—well-fi­nanced spe­cial in­ter­est groups are of­ten ac­cused of hi­jack­ing the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess—but from a move­ment-build­ing per­spec­tive, it does seem that, all other things equal, get­ting the pub­lic to ex­plic­itly en­dorse a policy at the bal­lot is prefer­able to en­act­ing leg­is­la­tion through lob­by­ing.

Nat­u­rally, there’s no guaran­tee that a given bal­lot mea­sure cam­paign will always be more cost-effec­tive than di­rectly lob­by­ing leg­is­la­tors to en­act some policy. Con­text is ev­ery­thing. Laws sur­round­ing bal­lot mea­sures vary from ju­ris­dic­tion to ju­ris­dic­tion, and other fac­tors, such as the pres­ence and price of pe­ti­tion drive man­age­ment com­pa­nies,[34] vary as well. Some causes may be more pop­u­lar with leg­is­la­tors than with the gen­eral pub­lic, in­creas­ing the effec­tive­ness of di­rect lob­by­ing. And al­though smaller and newer or­ga­ni­za­tions are less likely to be able to effi­ciently lobby leg­is­la­tors in gen­eral, there may be unique cir­cum­stances in which lob­by­ing some group of leg­is­la­tors on some par­tic­u­lar is­sue is more tractable than launch­ing an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign.

Even a failed ini­ti­a­tive can raise aware­ness and shift pub­lic acceptance

A bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive need not be en­acted into law in or­der to have a pos­i­tive im­pact. Damore, Bowler, & Ni­chol­son 2012 write, “The liter­a­ture on the ini­ti­a­tive sug­gests that in­ter­est groups may benefit even if a pro­posal does not pass. [...] or­ga­nized in­ter­ests may have goals (i.e., mo­bi­liza­tion, net­work­ing, mem­ber­ship growth, etc.) be­sides policy change for qual­ify­ing ini­ti­a­tives. In­ter­est groups may, in a sense, ‘win’ even if a pro­posal loses at the bal­lot” (370).[35] This point is of­ten ap­plied to an­i­mal welfare ini­ti­a­tives. For ex­am­ple, Smith­son et al. 2014 write, “When Flori­di­ans first voted to ban ges­ta­tion crates in 2002, cit­i­zens in other states read about this pe­cu­liar ini­ti­a­tive and for the first time learned how sows were housed” (108). Whether or not Florida’s ges­ta­tion crate ban failed (which it did not), it could have benefited farmed an­i­mals. Re­cent ev­i­dence sug­gests that “me­dia at­ten­tion to an­i­mal welfare has a small, but statis­ti­cally sig­nifi­cant im­pact on meat de­mand” (Ton­sor & Olynk 2011: 59) and that meat iden­ti­fied as origi­nat­ing in a fac­tory farm tastes saltier, greasier, and less fresh com­pared to iden­ti­cal meat la­bel­led ‘hu­manely-raised’ (An­der­son & Bar­rett 2016). Ed­u­cat­ing vot­ers about the con­di­tions in which farmed an­i­mals are raised is a nec­es­sary pre­cur­sor to chang­ing at­ti­tudes to­ward farmed an­i­mal suffer­ing. By rais­ing aware­ness about an im­por­tant but of­ten un­no­ticed is­sue, this ini­ti­a­tive paved the way (in part) for fu­ture ini­ti­a­tives in other states like Mas­sachusetts and Cal­ifor­nia.

If con­ducted care­fully, an EA-led bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign could raise aware­ness about ne­glected (but high-im­pact) cause ar­eas and shift at­ti­tudes closer to­ward EA val­ues. This was part of the ra­tio­nale for the (mostly) suc­cess­ful Zurich effec­tive for­eign aid ini­ti­a­tive, dis­cussed above. When jus­tify­ing us­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives as in­ter­ven­tion, the or­ga­niz­ers wrote (em­pha­sis added), “The ini­ti­a­tive will cause ex­ten­sive me­dia cov­er­age and spark a pub­lic de­bate about effec­tive al­tru­ism and ev­i­dence-based for­eign aid, as is usual for novel ideas pre­sented in pop­u­lar ini­ti­a­tives. More­over, in­for­ma­tion on the refer­en­dum – in­clud­ing ar­gu­ments for effec­tive al­tru­ism it­self – will be mailed to all 400,000 cit­i­zens of the city of Zurich.” They added, “Th­ese benefits do not de­pend heav­ily on the ac­tual out­come of the refer­en­dum; rather, they are mostly guaran­teed to oc­cur as a by-product of the ini­ti­a­tive it­self. We be­lieve that the move­ment-build­ing benefits alone would make the ini­ti­a­tive a worth­while pro­ject.”[36]

Of course, not all pub­lic­ity is good pub­lic­ity. Ac­tivity in fa­vor of some policy can arouse op­po­si­tion to the policy as well as sup­port. Some­times ad­vo­cacy for one side tends to bolster, rather than un­der­mine, the op­pos­ing camp. For ex­am­ple, the proso­cial ac­tivi­ties of com­pa­nies whose mo­tives are per­ceived to be in­sincere or am­bigu­ous ac­tu­ally hurt the com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion (Yoon, Gürhan‐Canli, & Sch­warz 2006), and nega­tive stereo­types of so­cial ac­tivists some­times make peo­ple more re­sis­tant to the adop­tion of so­cial changes that those ac­tivists pro­mote (Bashir et al. 2013).[37] If planned or ex­e­cuted poorly, a failed EA-led ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign could not only ex­pend re­sources with­out im­prov­ing on the sta­tus quo—it could ac­tively re­duce sup­port for the pro­posed change or even dam­age the move­ment’s over­all image. At a min­i­mum, we should prob­a­bly as­sume that an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign to change some policy will prob­a­bly in­duce at least a short­term in­crease in the spend­ing in sup­port of the sta­tus quo. Whether the in­creased at­ten­tion from both sides is a net-gain (and how at­ten­tion shifts in the longterm) is wor­thy of deeper in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

A cred­ible bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive threat can mo­ti­vate legislators

The over­all im­pact of the bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess is hard to pre­cisely mea­sure be­cause much of that im­pact oc­curs in­di­rectly. Mat­susaka 2018 writes, “One in­sight from the the­o­ret­i­cal liter­a­ture is that di­rect democ­racy’s effect on policy comes to a large de­gree by chang­ing the be­hav­ior of rep­re­sen­ta­tives” (113), not­ing that “this im­plies that the effect of the ini­ti­a­tive can­not be in­ferred by ex­am­in­ing only those propo­si­tions that ac­tu­ally ap­pear on the bal­lot” (118). He con­cludes, “The effect of the ini­ti­a­tive and refer­en­dum is in­di­rect, po­ten­tially to a large de­gree. Policy may change not be­cause vot­ers ap­prove a propo­si­tion, but be­cause the threat of a propo­si­tion causes the gov­ern­ment to choose a differ­ent policy” (118).

Leg­is­la­tors in bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive ju­ris­dic­tions take note of which ini­ti­a­tives have been suc­cess­ful in other ju­ris­dic­tions. As above, this point is of­ten ap­plied to an­i­mal welfare leg­is­la­tion. Smith­son et al. 2014 re­port, “The egg in­dus­try’s weak­ness is Ohio. It is the sec­ond largest egg-pro­duc­ing state, 63% of its vot­ers are pro­jected to vote in fa­vor of an ini­ti­a­tive re­sem­bling Prop two, and Ohio’s laws make ini­ti­a­tives pos­si­ble and rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive. For these rea­sons, the egg and pork in­dus­tries were wor­ried HSUS would be able to ban ges­ta­tion crates and bat­tery cages through an ini­ti­a­tive re­sem­bling Prop two and ca­pitu­lated to pre­vent a pub­lic defeat and to ne­go­ti­ate fa­vor­able terms. The Ohio egg lobby, we sus­pect how­ever can­not prove, sought to force other states to also phase out the bat­tery cage. Other­wise, Ohio would be hob­bled by higher pro­duc­tion costs” (122). Not only did a cred­ible bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive threat cause (at least in part) the Ohio egg and pork in­dus­tries to adopt higher welfare stan­dards with­out much of a fight, the bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive threat also seems to have turned the Ohio egg lobby from ad­ver­sary to ally in the na­tion­wide fight to im­prove layer con­di­tions.

The EA com­mu­nity has already wit­nessed how a cred­ible bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive can push leg­is­la­tors in the right di­rec­tion. As dis­cussed above, in 2016 the Effec­tive Altru­ism Foun­da­tion (EAF) launched a lo­cal ini­ti­a­tive that would have raised the city of Zurich’s for­eign aid bud­get from ap­prox­i­mately $2.5 mil­lion per year to ap­prox­i­mately $87 mil­lion per year, while also re­quiring that that aid bud­get be des­ig­nated for highly effec­tive char­i­ties. In 2018, the fi­nan­cial com­mis­sion of the city coun­cil offered to put a com­pro­mise mea­sure on the bal­lot (stan­dard prac­tice in Switzer­land) rais­ing the for­eign aid bud­get to ap­prox­i­mately $8 mil­lion per year and re­quiring al­lo­ca­tion of the funds to be “based on the available sci­en­tific re­search on effec­tive­ness and cost-effec­tive­ness.” Based on their as­sess­ment of the prob­a­bil­ity of vic­tory of the re­spec­tive pro­pos­als, EAF agreed to re­tract the origi­nal ini­ti­a­tive (a con­di­tion for plac­ing the coun­ter­pro­posal on the bal­lot) and sup­port the com­pro­mise. In Novem­ber 2019, Zurich vot­ers ap­proved the re­vised ini­ti­a­tive 70% to 30%, thus sig­nifi­cantly in­creas­ing Zurich’s for­eign aid bud­get and en­act­ing what ap­pears to be the first piece of Swiss leg­is­la­tion that im­poses effec­tive­ness re­quire­ments on de­vel­op­ment aid.

Although a cred­ible bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive threat can make com­pro­mise more likely, such a threat might also prompt the tar­geted in­dus­try or op­posed leg­is­la­tors to take pre­emp­tive ac­tion to en­trench their po­si­tions. A cred­ible bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive threat might mo­ti­vate an in­ter­est group to start run­ning fa­vor­able ads in a bid to change pub­lic opinion long be­fore an ini­ti­a­tive reaches the bal­lot. A cred­ible bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive threat might also mo­ti­vate hos­tile leg­is­la­tors to amend the ju­ris­dic­tion’s con­sti­tu­tion to re­duce the power of fu­ture ini­ti­a­tives to make effec­tive change. This is ar­guably what hap­pened re­cently in Mis­souri, where in 2014 leg­is­la­tors voted to put a so-called ‘right-to-farm’ con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment on the bal­lot, where it passed by the thinnest of mar­gins. The amend­ment ex­plic­itly guaran­tees farm­ers and ranch­ers the right to uti­lize mod­ern live­stock pro­duc­tion tech­niques. Any effort to get an­i­mal welfare ini­ti­a­tives like those passed in Cal­ifor­nia and Mas­sachusetts on the bal­lot in Mis­souri (which has a large farmed an­i­mal in­dus­try) will now have to con­tend with re­peal­ing this amend­ment first, mak­ing an­i­mal welfare cam­paigns in Mis­souri all the more ex­pen­sive and un­cer­tain.

Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive limitations

De­spite the ad­van­tages dis­cussed above, run­ning a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign is not easy, and there are many ways a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign can fail out­right or fail to be cost-effec­tive. Any­one con­tem­plat­ing launch­ing such a cam­paign should care­fully con­sider the fol­low­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive limi­ta­tions.

The cost of run­ning a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign is difficult to predict

Un­like some other in­ter­ven­tions, it is difficult to know in ad­vance how much run­ning a suc­cess­ful bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign might cost. There’s not much that can be said in gen­eral about the cost of run­ning a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign. There are some gen­er­al­iza­tions, but they are of lit­tle prac­ti­cal help. Larger ju­ris­dic­tions tend to be more ex­pen­sive than smaller ju­ris­dic­tions (though likely cheaper per cap­ita on av­er­age be­cause of fixed costs). Juris­dic­tions with more stringent re­quire­ments tend to de­mand more re­sources to qual­ify for the bal­lot than ju­ris­dic­tions with less stringent re­quire­ments. Ini­ti­a­tives that tar­get pow­er­ful vested in­ter­ests tend to gen­er­ate more op­po­si­tion than ini­ti­a­tives that do not tar­get pow­er­ful vested in­ter­ests. Ini­ti­a­tives that pro­mote un­pop­u­lar po­si­tions tend to re­quire more fi­nan­cial sup­port in or­der to pass than ini­ti­a­tives that pro­mote pop­u­lar po­si­tions.[38]

Thanks to cam­paign fi­nance trans­parency laws, it’s pos­si­ble to look at some re­cent EA-rele­vant ini­ti­a­tives in or­der to get a rough sense of what run­ning an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign might cost. Un­for­tu­nately, there’s a tremen­dous range. Some cam­paigns are very ex­pen­sive.[39] Groups sup­port­ing Florida’s suc­cess­ful 2018 Amend­ment 4 (restor­ing vot­ing rights to felons who have com­pleted their sen­tences) raised over $25 mil­lion (in­clud­ing $750,000 from Open Philan­thropy) and spent just over $23 mil­lion. (There was no for­mal op­po­si­tion.) Groups sup­port­ing Cal­ifor­nia’s suc­cess­ful 2018 Propo­si­tion 12 (es­tab­lish­ing min­i­mum square-footage for veal calves, breed­ing pigs, and layer hens) raised over $13 mil­lion (in­clud­ing $4 mil­lion from Open Philan­thropy) and spent roughly the same. (Op­po­nents spent a lowly $441,000.) Groups sup­port­ing Wash­ing­ton’s un­suc­cess­ful 2018 Ini­ti­a­tive 1631 (which would have es­tab­lished a car­bon tax in the state) raised over $16 mil­lion (in­clud­ing a mil­lion dol­lars from Bill Gates). (Op­po­nents spent a whop­ping $31.5 mil­lion.) In con­trast to these big, costly, statewide cam­paigns, the group sup­port­ing Den­ver’s suc­cess­ful 2019 Ini­ti­ated Or­di­nance 301 (de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing psilo­cy­bin in the city) spent a mere $47,000. Ac­cord­ing to data available from Bal­lot­pe­dia, in 2018 the me­dian amount raised in sup­port of a U.S. statewide bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive that qual­ified for the bal­lot was ap­prox­i­mately $3.8 mil­lion (mean: $7.6 mil­lion). (See Figure 1.) Lo­cal ini­ti­a­tives are un­doubt­edly cheaper on av­er­age than statewide ini­ti­a­tives, though whether they are more cost-effec­tive is un­cer­tain.

Figure 1: U.S. Statewide Cam­paign Con­tri­bu­tions Per Bal­lot Ini­ti­a­tive, 2018[40]

One fac­tor that is difficult to pre­dict but that has the po­ten­tial to sig­nifi­cantly af­fect the cost of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign is the num­ber and na­ture of le­gal challenges that are brought against the ini­ti­a­tive.

Le­gal challenges to a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive can oc­cur at many stages of the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess. The val­idity of col­lected sig­na­tures can be challenged, the sub­ject of the ini­ti­a­tive can be challenged, the offi­cial ti­tle and sum­mary can be challenged, con­for­mity to the rele­vant cam­paign fi­nance laws can be challenged, and the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the ini­ti­a­tive can be challenged. After an ini­ti­a­tive has been ap­proved, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the ini­ti­a­tive can be challenged as well. Any of these challenges can im­peril the suc­cess of an ini­ti­a­tive, and le­gal re­search in an­ti­ci­pa­tion of these challenges can add to ini­tial costs.

After an ini­ti­a­tive spon­sor has col­lected enough sig­na­tures to qual­ify the ini­ti­a­tive for the bal­lot, those sig­na­tures must be val­i­dated. (See Ap­pendix 1 for more de­tails.) The out­come of the val­i­da­tion pro­cess is some­times challenged in court. Th­ese challenges come in two forms: post-cer­tifi­ca­tion sig­na­ture challenges and sig­na­ture re­cov­ery challenges. The former is brought by op­po­nents of an ini­ti­a­tive that has qual­ified for the bal­lot seek­ing to have enough ad­di­tional sig­na­tures in­val­i­dated to get the ini­ti­a­tive thrown off the bal­lot. The lat­ter is brought by sup­port­ers of an ini­ti­a­tive that has not qual­ified for the bal­lot seek­ing to have enough pre­vi­ously in­val­i­dated sig­na­tures re­cer­tified to qual­ify for the bal­lot. An ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign must be pre­pared to defend against a post-cer­tifi­ca­tion challenge if nec­es­sary and also be pre­pared to launch a re­cov­ery challenge (if the odds of suc­cess are rea­son­able).

Many ju­ris­dic­tions have so-called sin­gle-sub­ject rules, pro­hibit­ing ini­ti­a­tives from cov­er­ing mul­ti­ple top­ics. Ad­her­ence to these rules can be challenged in court. The pur­pose of sin­gle-sub­ject rules is to make ini­ti­a­tives eas­ier to un­der­stand and to pre­vent pop­u­lar pro­vi­sions from be­ing bun­dled with un­pop­u­lar pro­vi­sions. How­ever, Mat­susaka & Hasen 2010 note that such rules are “con­tro­ver­sial in part be­cause the defi­ni­tion of a ‘sin­gle sub­ject’ is un­clear [...] As a re­sult, courts have a great deal of dis­cre­tion in sin­gle sub­ject cases” (399). They re­port that such rules were used “to strike down or re­move ini­ti­a­tives from voter con­sid­er­a­tion in at least 70 cases dur­ing the pe­riod 1997–2006” (399). More­over, they pre­sent ev­i­dence “that judges are more likely to vote to up­hold an ini­ti­a­tive against a sin­gle sub­ject challenge if their par­ti­san af­fili­a­tions sug­gest they would be sym­pa­thetic to the policy pro­posed by the ini­ti­a­tive” (399). Thus, an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign ought to be pre­pared to fight a sin­gle-sub­ject challenge, and they should prob­a­bly be at­tuned to the poli­ti­cal lean­ings of the judges in the ju­ris­dic­tion in which such a challenge would be fought.

An ini­ti­a­tive’s ti­tle and sum­mary can be ex­tremely im­por­tant, es­pe­cially for low-salience is­sues. An ini­ti­a­tive’s offi­cial ti­tle and sum­mary as they ap­pear on the ac­tual bal­lot are always the last piece of in­for­ma­tion vot­ers are ex­posed to be­fore they cast their vote. But for is­sues that don’t gen­er­ate much me­dia at­ten­tion, an ini­ti­a­tive’s offi­cial ti­tle and sum­mary as they ap­pear on the ac­tual bal­lot of­ten con­sti­tute a voter’s first ex­po­sure to the is­sue. Thus, for low-salience is­sues, an un­fa­vor­able ti­tle or sum­mary has the po­ten­tial to sig­nifi­cantly re­duce the odds of ap­proval. In most ju­ris­dic­tions the or­ga­niz­ers of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign do not have con­trol over how the ini­ti­a­tive is ti­tled and sum­ma­rized on the bal­lot. (See Ap­pendix 1 for more de­tails.) An ini­ti­a­tive’s ti­tle and sum­mary can be challenged in court. Be­cause of the im­por­tance of an ini­ti­a­tive’s ti­tle and sum­mary, most or­ga­ni­za­tions that run bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns ought to bud­get for this even­tu­al­ity. It’s difficult to calcu­late the risk of such law­suits across all ju­ris­dic­tions, but some use­ful gen­er­al­iza­tions can be gleaned by ex­am­in­ing re­cent U.S. statewide bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. Ac­cord­ing to data available on Bal­lot­pe­dia, be­tween 2008 and 2018 there were 403 U.S. statewide ini­ti­a­tives cer­tified for the bal­lot. In this time pe­riod there were 97 law­suits re­gard­ing bal­lot lan­guage. Of these 97 law­suits, 27 ended with lan­guage the ini­ti­a­tive au­thors didn’t want and a fur­ther 5 law­suits re­sulted in the ini­ti­a­tive be­ing tossed from the bal­lot al­to­gether. In the re­main­der of cases, the origi­nal lan­guage stayed in­tact or the pro­po­nents of the ini­ti­a­tive agreed to com­pro­mise lan­guage.[41]

All U.S. states that al­low bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives im­pose cam­paign fi­nance reg­u­la­tions on bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns (Primo 2013). In many states, such as Ohio, the name, ad­dress, em­ployer, and oc­cu­pa­tion of ma­jor donors must be dis­closed.[42] Ex­pen­di­tures above a cer­tain thresh­old must also be tracked and doc­u­mented. Many lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions have similar reg­u­la­tions. Op­po­nents of an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign can challenge its con­for­mity to the rele­vant cam­paign fi­nance laws. Be­cause cam­paign fi­nance law can be com­plex and com­ply­ing with the law some­what oner­ous, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive sup­port­ers must be pre­pared for the pos­si­bil­ity of a law­suit that alleges cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tions.

The con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive might also be challenged. An ini­ti­a­tive might be un­con­sti­tu­tional ei­ther be­cause it is pre­empted by a higher le­gal au­thor­ity (e.g., a lo­cal ini­ti­a­tive pre­empted by state or fed­eral law) or be­cause it sub­stan­tively vi­o­lates a con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sion. The con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of an ini­ti­a­tive can be challenged ei­ther be­fore or af­ter the elec­tion in which the ini­ti­a­tive ap­pears on the bal­lot.[43] Even if a con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity challenge is ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful, the time and ex­pense of defend­ing an ini­ti­a­tive from such a challenge can be con­sid­er­able. For ex­am­ple, in 2008 Cal­ifor­nia vot­ers ap­proved Propo­si­tion 2, pro­hibit­ing the pro­duc­tion of an­i­mals con­fined in a way such that they are un­able to stand up, turn around, or fully ex­tend their limbs. Op­po­nents of the ini­ti­a­tive filed sev­eral challenges against the new law. One suit, Cramer v. Har­ris, alleged that the mea­sure was too vague and thus could not be rea­son­ably im­ple­mented.[44] The suit was dis­missed in Fe­bru­ary 2015, more than six years af­ter the elec­tion in which the ini­ti­a­tive was ap­proved. Another suit, Mis­souri et al. v. Cal­ifor­nia, alleged that a fol­low-up law to Prop 2, AB 1437, that cre­ated an egg sales stan­dard mir­ror­ing Prop 2’s guidelines, vi­o­lated the Com­merce Clause of the Con­sti­tu­tion be­cause it banned the sale of eggs from hens in bat­tery cages, even if those chick­ens were lo­cated out­side Cal­ifor­nia. The suit was dis­missed in the District Court for Eastern Cal­ifor­nia in Oc­to­ber 2014, ap­pealed to the United States Court of Ap­peals for the 9th Cir­cuit, which up­held the rul­ing in Novem­ber 2016, then ap­pealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court de­clined to hear the case in Jan­uary 2019, fi­nally end­ing the le­gal fight more than a decade af­ter votes were cast and counted.

Fi­nally, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of an ini­ti­a­tive can be con­tested. Staszewski 2013 re­ports that “poli­ti­cal sci­en­tists have pointed out that pop­u­lar ini­ti­a­tives are es­pe­cially likely to con­tain am­bi­gui­ties” (1182), and these am­bi­gui­ties some­times lead to le­gal challenges.[45] For ex­am­ple, in Novem­ber 2018 Florida vot­ers ap­proved Amend­ment 4, an ini­ti­ated con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to au­to­mat­i­cally re­store vot­ing rights to felons (ex­clud­ing those con­victed of mur­der or sex­ual vi­o­lence) upon com­ple­tion of their sen­tences. This past June the gov­er­nor signed leg­is­la­tion spec­i­fy­ing that the com­ple­tion of a crim­i­nal sen­tence in­cludes full pay­ment of resti­tu­tion as well as any fines, fees, or other costs in­curred as a re­sult of con­vic­tion. The pro­po­nents of Amend­ment 4 took is­sue with this in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ini­ti­a­tive and filed a law­suit, cur­rently pend­ing in dis­trict court, against the leg­is­la­tion. It now ap­pears that the fate of Amend­ment 4 may de­pend on the ju­di­cial in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the mean­ing of a comma.

Ini­ti­a­tives are some­times amended or repealed

In most ju­ris­dic­tions, the re­sults of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive vote are bind­ing and the lan­guage of the ini­ti­a­tive is self-ex­e­cut­ing. That is to say, when a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive is ap­proved, it au­to­mat­i­cally be­comes law (on the date in­di­cated in the ini­ti­a­tive). Nonethe­less, there are a num­ber of ways in which an un­co­op­er­a­tive leg­is­la­ture can un­der­mine the in­tent of an ini­ti­a­tive, rang­ing from un­faith­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion to amend­ment to out­right re­peal. Of the 97 statewide ini­ti­a­tives ap­proved be­tween 2010 and 2018, 11 ini­ti­a­tives were re­pealed or amended in a way that went against the wishes of the ini­ti­a­tive’s sup­port­ers.[46] For ex­am­ple, in Novem­ber 2010, Mis­souri vot­ers ap­proved an ini­ti­a­tive to ban puppy mills. By April 2011, the gov­er­nor signed leg­is­la­tion re­peal­ing, among other things, the max­i­mum limit of 50 breed­ing dogs per busi­ness, a core pro­vi­sion of the ini­ti­a­tive. As an­other ex­am­ple, in Novem­ber 2016, vot­ers in Maine ap­proved an ini­ti­a­tive in­creas­ing the state min­i­mum wage. By June of the fol­low­ing year, the gov­er­nor signed leg­is­la­tion amend­ing the in­crease so that it no longer ap­plied to restau­rant work­ers.

The laws gov­ern­ing the leg­is­la­tive re­peal or amend­ment of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives vary from state to state. In 11 states (Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Mas­sachusetts, Mis­souri, Mon­tana, Ohio, Ok­la­homa, Ore­gon, South Dakota, Utah), there are no re­stric­tions on how soon or with what ma­jor­ity leg­is­la­tors can re­peal or amend suc­cess­ful statu­tory ini­ti­a­tives.[47] In two states (Alaska, Wy­oming), the leg­is­la­ture can amend a suc­cess­ful ini­ti­a­tive at any time, but must wait two years be­fore re­peal­ing an ini­ti­a­tive. In three states (Michi­gan, Ne­braska, Arkansas), the leg­is­la­ture can amend or re­peal a suc­cess­ful ini­ti­a­tive at any time with a two-thirds su­per­ma­jor­ity vote. In North Dakota, the leg­is­la­ture can amend an ini­ti­a­tive at any time with a two-thirds su­per­ma­jor­ity vote, and af­ter seven years can amend an ini­ti­a­tive via a sim­ple ma­jor­ity vote. In Ne­vada, the leg­is­la­ture must wait three years be­fore it can amend or re­peal (via a sim­ple ma­jor­ity vote) a suc­cess­ful ini­ti­a­tive. In two states (Ari­zona, Cal­ifor­nia), chang­ing or amend­ing a suc­cess­ful bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive re­quires voter ap­proval.[48]

A failed ini­ti­a­tive might dam­age the move­ment and a suc­cess­ful ini­ti­a­tive might en­gen­der over­whelming opposition

Even in fa­vor­able con­di­tions, run­ning a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign risks failure, and failure can look bad. Put­ting up an ini­ti­a­tive that vot­ers re­ject can ex­pose a lack of pop­u­lar sup­port for the pro­posed policy, harm­ing move­ment morale, re­duc­ing mo­men­tum, and em­bold­en­ing op­po­si­tion. Th­ese sec­ond-or­der effects ought to be con­sid­ered when judg­ing the ex­pected value of an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign. When a move­ment is on a win­ning streak, as, for ex­am­ple, the farmed an­i­mal welfare move­ment ap­pears to be on, a sin­gle loss at the bal­lot box may dam­age the move­ment much more than an ad­di­tional vic­tory aids the move­ment.

Vic­tory brings its own risks. Small, early suc­cesses in a cause area can­not always be ex­trap­o­lated to later, ma­jor suc­cesses. En­trenched in­ter­ests may be will­ing to con­cede minor vic­to­ries to the op­po­si­tion with­out much of a fight, but as the op­po­si­tion threat grows, at some point those en­trenched in­ter­ests might de­cide to re­spond with over­whelming force. Take the an­i­mal agri­cul­ture in­dus­try, for ex­am­ple. Re­cent ini­ti­a­tive vic­to­ries ap­pear promis­ing, but it’s worth not­ing that these ini­ti­a­tives have thus far not at­tracted a lot of at­ten­tion, which may be limit­ing the amount of spend­ing nec­es­sary to pro­mote them. Cal­ifor­nia’s Propo­si­tion 12 was a land­mark achieve­ment in the an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy com­mu­nity, but it wasn’t even fea­tured on FiveThir­tyEight’s re­view of 27 bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives worth watch­ing in 2018. If an­i­mal welfare bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives at­tracted a higher pro­file, that could dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the amount of spend­ing needed to sup­port them.[49] A more far-reach­ing pro­posal, such as an out­right ban on in­ten­sive an­i­mal agri­cul­ture, would al­most cer­tainly en­gen­der much more op­po­si­tion. Such mas­sive op­po­si­tion could sub­stan­tially shift pub­lic opinion from where the ini­tial pol­ling puts it, re­duc­ing the prospect of fu­ture vic­tory.

Taken to­gether, these two points might sug­gest ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns ought to pro­ceed cau­tiously and con­ser­va­tively. Past suc­cess doesn’t guaran­tee fu­ture suc­cess. And there is at least some rea­son to think that mod­est cam­paigns will have a higher ex­pected value than am­bi­tious cam­paigns, once the sec­ond-or­der effects are fac­tored in. As with all in­ter­ven­tions, as the low-hang­ing fruit in an area is ex­hausted, the ex­pected value of ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns will de­cline.

Areas for fu­ture research

Much work re­mains to be done in or­der to de­ter­mine whether and in what con­texts bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are a use­ful in­ter­ven­tion to pro­mote EA causes. Although the ul­ti­mate util­ity of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns is un­known, the cur­rent ex­pected value of ad­di­tional bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive re­search looks to be pass­ably high. Given the po­ten­tially sig­nifi­cant im­pact of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns, re­duc­ing the un­cer­tainty about their cost-effec­tive­ness ap­pears to be a rea­son­ably good use of re­sources. Below we out­line just a few ex­am­ples. Again, we wel­come ad­di­tional re­search ques­tions from the com­mu­nity.

Get­ting on the bal­lot is a nec­es­sary step to achiev­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive suc­cess. A rel­a­tively com­pre­hen­sive guide com­par­ing the fea­si­bil­ity of get­ting ini­ti­a­tives on the bal­lot across im­por­tant ju­ris­dic­tions, in­clud­ing ju­ris­dic­tions out­side the U.S., could be a valuable tool for eval­u­at­ing where to launch an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign.

To as­sess the cost-effec­tive­ness of a po­ten­tial bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign, it is crit­i­cal to know what the odds of suc­cess are. There is already a small aca­demic liter­a­ture on mod­el­ing the odds of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive suc­cess (see e.g. Smith­son et al. 2014). Such pre­dic­tive mod­el­ing could be re­fined and ex­panded to cover more ju­ris­dic­tions and more cause ar­eas.

Models are only as ac­cu­rate as their in­puts. While some rele­vant in­for­ma­tion is pub­li­cly available, such as de­mo­graphic data, other im­por­tant pieces are un­known. Timely pol­ling num­bers across a va­ri­ety of cause ar­eas and ju­ris­dic­tions could help us iden­tify promis­ing re­gions and is­sues to tar­get.

As noted above, even a failed bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive can have pos­i­tive effects by rais­ing aware­ness and shift­ing pub­lic per­cep­tions. Stud­ies that mea­sure the de­gree to which defeated bal­lot mea­sures change pub­lic at­ti­tudes could help quan­tify this benefit.

Un­der­stand­ing the costs and benefits of a po­ten­tial ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign don’t dic­tate whether the cam­paign would be more coun­ter­fac­tu­ally effec­tive than al­ter­na­tives. We must also an­a­lyze the effec­tive­ness of other routes to get­ting the tar­get policy adopted. In­so­far as this is pos­si­ble, stud­ies that di­rectly com­pare the cost-effec­tive­ness of bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns ver­sus tra­di­tional lob­by­ing would be ex­tremely use­ful.


This re­port be­gins the pro­ject of iden­ti­fy­ing and as­sess­ing where and when bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are an effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion. In re­cent years, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives have been used to im­prove the con­di­tions in which farmed an­i­mals are raised, im­prove in­sti­tu­tional de­ci­sion-mak­ing by chang­ing the way elec­tions are con­ducted, and in­crease the amount and effi­ciency of mu­ni­ci­pal for­eign aid. In the fu­ture, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives might be used to safely re­duce the size of prison pop­u­la­tions, de­crim­i­nal­ize psilo­cy­bin, cur­tail lead poi­son­ing, fund ba­sic re­search and de­vel­op­ment, pre­pare for catas­trophic risk, or even ban fac­tory farm­ing in some ju­ris­dic­tions.

De­spite the promise of such ex­am­ples, it is as yet un­clear if bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are an effec­tive strat­egy to pur­sue those goals. How­ever, bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns ap­pear promis­ing enough that such cam­paigns merit a closer look across a num­ber of cause ar­eas. Bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives offer the pos­si­bil­ity of craft­ing spe­cific policy pro­pos­als and sub­ject­ing them to a bind­ing up-or-down gen­eral vote, all with min­i­mal in­ter­ac­tion with elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives. There are few re­stric­tions on the con­tent of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive, and bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are pos­si­ble in a wide range of ju­ris­dic­tions. Scor­ing EA-al­igned policy vic­to­ries across sev­eral small, lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions has the po­ten­tial to build mo­men­tum be­hind those poli­cies and raise aware­ness about im­por­tant EA cause ar­eas. Re­think Pri­ori­ties wel­comes col­lab­o­ra­tion with other or­ga­ni­za­tions, re­searchers, ac­tivists, and fun­ders in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing ad­di­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive in­ter­ven­tions.

If you are in­ter­ested in fund­ing fur­ther bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive work, we know some pro­jects both in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally with sig­nifi­cant room for more fund­ing. Please con­tact Peter at pe­ter@pe­ter­hur­ to dis­cuss fur­ther if you’re in­ter­ested.

Ap­pendix 1: U.S. state bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive details

To win an ini­ti­a­tive and get your de­sired policy passed into law, you have to win the elec­tion where you meet the spe­cific ma­jor­ity-vote thresh­old for your cho­sen state (usu­ally, but not always, more than 50%). But to get there, you first have to get on the bal­lot in the state, which re­quires col­lect­ing sig­na­tures.

Gen­er­ally, the pro­cess for get­ting an ini­ti­a­tive on the bal­lot in­cludes these steps:

  1. Very min­i­mal pre­limi­nary sig­na­ture col­lec­tion, if re­quired (OH, OR, AK, ND, ID, ME, WY, WA)

  2. Pre­limi­nary filing of a pro­posed pe­ti­tion with a des­ig­nated state official

  3. Re­view of the pe­ti­tion for con­for­mance with statu­tory re­quire­ments and, in sev­eral states, a re­view of the lan­guage of the proposal

  4. Prepa­ra­tion of a bal­lot ti­tle and sum­mary for the petition

  5. Cir­cu­la­tion of the pe­ti­tion to ob­tain the re­quired num­ber of sig­na­tures of reg­istered vot­ers, usu­ally a per­centage of the votes cast for a statewide office in the pre­ced­ing gen­eral election

  6. Sub­mis­sion of the pe­ti­tions to the state elec­tions offi­cial, who must ver­ify the num­ber of signatures

  7. Prepa­ra­tion of a bal­lot ti­tle and sum­mary for the ballot

  8. Elec­tion day! (Pass des­ig­nated thresh­old − 50% in most states, 55% in CO, 60% in FL).

The ex­act pro­cess and num­ber of de­ci­sion points or cru­cial con­sid­er­a­tions vary by state with no two states hav­ing the ex­act same pro­cess.

Pre­limi­nary filing

In 14 states the pe­ti­tion must be filed with the Sec­re­tary of State. In oth­ers, it is sub­mit­ted to the At­tor­ney Gen­eral, Lieu­tenant Gover­nor, and/​or some other state offi­cial office. There is lit­tle to sug­gest one of these offices would be more or less re­cep­tive to ini­ti­a­tives with­out spe­cific knowl­edge of the con­tent of the ini­ti­a­tive and the par­ti­san lean of the offi­cial; how­ever, some states (such as MA, CO, and OK) re­quire the pe­ti­tion to be filed with mul­ti­ple offices, which could be more bur­den­some.

Re­view of petition

After the pre­limi­nary filing, some states offer or re­quire re­view of the draft ini­ti­a­tive. This in­cludes tech­ni­cal re­view (en­sur­ing that the ini­ti­a­tive meets le­gal re­quire­ments for for­mat and style) and/​or con­tent re­view (en­sur­ing the qual­ity and con­sis­tency of the pro­posal). While some states man­date that this re­view take place, ac­cep­tance of any recom­men­da­tions made is op­tional. This re­view is typ­i­cally ori­ented to help en­sure cit­i­zens draft­ing a bill with no le­gal back­ground or ex­per­tise can have as­sis­tance mak­ing it a pro­fes­sional and le­gal bill con­sis­tent with all of the state’s re­quire­ments.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, of the 10 states that offer some sort of draft­ing re­view, there is a wide range of ser­vices offered. Cal­ifor­nia, Mas­sachusetts, Mon­tana, and Ore­gon go as far as al­low­ing a draft or even just an idea to re­ceive helpful re­view and as­sis­tance in cre­at­ing a draft.

Prepa­ra­tion of bal­lot ti­tle and summary

A bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive also needs to be pre­sented with a ti­tle and a sum­mary (ex­cept Ne­vada, which does not have ti­tles). Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, “[t]he bal­lot ti­tle and sum­mary are ar­guably the most im­por­tant part of an ini­ti­a­tive in terms of voter ed­u­ca­tion. Most vot­ers never read more than the ti­tle and sum­mary of the text of ini­ti­a­tive pro­pos­als.” How­ever, this isn’t always in your di­rect con­trol and it varies state-to-state with many ex­cep­tions.

In six states (AR, AZ, OH, IL, OK, FL) the ini­ti­a­tive pro­po­nents are the party re­spon­si­ble for draft­ing the ti­tle of the bal­lot, though it still needs to be ap­proved by ei­ther the At­tor­ney Gen­eral, Lt. At­tor­ney Gen­eral, the Sec­re­tary of State, and/​or the Board of Elec­tions, de­pend­ing on the state.

In 17 states (CA, ID, MS, MT, NE, OR, SD, WA, AK, ME, MO, WY, MA, ND, CO, UT, MI) the party re­spon­si­ble for draft­ing the ti­tle of the bal­lot is some com­bi­na­tion of the At­tor­ney Gen­eral, the Lt. Gover­nor, the Sec­re­tary of State, a Bal­lot Ti­tle Board, the Office of Leg­is­la­tive Re­search and Gen­eral Coun­sel, the Direc­tor of Elec­tions and/​or Board of State Can­vassers.

An un­de­sir­able sum­mary or ti­tle can be challenged in court, but the choice of court varies tremen­dously from state to state. Also keep in mind that the court sys­tems them­selves vary state by state and the func­tion and role of a “Su­pe­rior Court” may not be the same even if it nom­i­nally has the same name.

Ob­tain­ing signatures

To be cer­tified for the bal­lot, an ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tion must be signed by a cer­tain num­ber of reg­istered vot­ers within a cer­tain pe­riod of time.[50] Ob­tain­ing the req­ui­site num­ber of sig­na­tures can be both difficult and ex­pen­sive, and many ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tions fail to make it to the bal­lot be­cause they fail at this stage.[51] Ac­cord­ing to data available from Bal­lot­pe­dia, in 2018 ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns spent about $75 mil­lion col­lect­ing sig­na­tures across 68 cit­i­zen-ini­ti­ated cam­paigns. (Notably, this num­ber does not in­clude money spent col­lect­ing sig­na­tures for ini­ti­a­tives that did not qual­ify for the bal­lot.) Thus, in 2018 the av­er­age cost to col­lect enough sig­na­tures to qual­ify an ini­ti­a­tive for the bal­lot was about $1.1 mil­lion. How­ever, this av­er­age hides a rather large range, as the cost-per-re­quired-sig­na­ture (CPRS) varies from ju­ris­dic­tion to ju­ris­dic­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the same data from Bal­lot­pe­dia, in 2018, across the 68 ini­ti­a­tives cer­tified for the bal­lot, the CPRS per ini­ti­a­tive ranged from $0.07 per sig­na­ture to $25.86 per sig­na­ture (av­er­age: $6.52).

The re­quire­ments and re­stric­tions im­posed by state law form a ma­jor fac­tor in the ex­pense of an ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tion sig­na­ture effort. Higher sig­na­ture re­quire­ments are a straight­for­ward ex­am­ple of a rea­son an ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tion cam­paign might be more ex­pen­sive in one state than in an­other. Per­centage re­quire­ments for sig­na­tures on statu­tory ini­ti­a­tives range from a low of 2 per­cent of the res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion in North Dakota (13,452 for 2020 bal­lot ac­cess), to a high of 15 per­cent of the to­tal num­ber of votes cast in the pre­ced­ing elec­tion in Wy­oming (30,791 sig­na­tures for 2020 bal­lot ac­cess). The high­est to­tal sig­na­ture re­quire­ment is in Cal­ifor­nia, where 623,212 sig­na­tures are re­quired to place a statu­tory ini­ti­a­tive on the 2020 bal­lot (equal to 5 per­cent of the votes cast for gov­er­nor in the last elec­tion).[52] An up-to-date table on dead­lines and re­quire­ments for sig­na­ture gath­er­ing is available on Bal­lot­pe­dia.

There are sev­eral other fac­tors that af­fect the cost and difficulty of ob­tain­ing sig­na­tures. Many ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns em­ploy pe­ti­tion drive man­age­ment com­pa­nies to han­dle this stage of the pro­cess. Pe­ti­tion drive man­age­ment com­pa­nies are for-profit out­fits that spe­cial­ize in the col­lec­tion of sig­na­tures to qual­ify ini­ti­a­tives for the bal­lot. How­ever, the num­ber, qual­ity, and ul­ti­mate cost-effec­tive­ness of pe­ti­tion drive man­age­ment com­pa­nies varies by ju­ris­dic­tion. More­over, some ju­ris­dic­tions place re­stric­tions on paid cir­cu­la­tors, such as pro­hibit­ing pay­ment based on the num­ber of sig­na­tures col­lected.

Some states have dis­tri­bu­tion re­quire­ments, re­quiring that a cer­tain per­centage of ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures come from differ­ent coun­ties or con­gres­sional dis­tricts. Distri­bu­tion re­quire­ments tend to drive up cost be­cause it is eas­ier and less ex­pen­sive to col­lect a lot of sig­na­tures in one very pop­u­lous area than a small num­ber of sig­na­tures from lots of smaller, less-pop­u­lated ar­eas. Even in states with­out dis­tri­bu­tion re­quire­ments, ge­og­ra­phy can be im­por­tant. The more uniform the pop­u­la­tion den­sity of the state, the more ground that needs to be cov­ered in or­der to ob­tain enough sig­na­tures.

A fi­nal con­sid­er­a­tion is the amount of time in which a cam­paign must gather its sig­na­tures in or­der to qual­ify for the bal­lot. The ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tion cir­cu­la­tion pe­riod is the time from which an ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tion is ap­proved to the time sig­na­tures must be sub­mit­ted for ver­ifi­ca­tion. Sig­na­tures col­lected out­side this win­dow are not valid. In gen­eral, the more time that ini­ti­a­tive pro­po­nents have to col­lect sig­na­tures, the less ex­pen­sive the pro­cess will be. An ini­ti­a­tive pe­ti­tion cir­cu­la­tion pe­riod can be as short as 90 days (Ok­la­homa).

There are other wrin­kles as well. Mas­sachusetts, Ohio and Utah have what’s called an in­di­rect ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess. In these states, spon­sors gather a smaller num­ber of sig­na­tures to reach the first stage of qual­ifi­ca­tion. Once enough valid sig­na­tures are gath­ered to meet this first stage’s thresh­old, the ini­ti­a­tive goes be­fore the state leg­is­la­ture. If the leg­is­la­ture en­acts the pro­posal, no fur­ther pe­ti­tion takes place and the pro­posal be­comes law. If the leg­is­la­ture fails to en­act the pro­posal as writ­ten, spon­sors then go through a sec­ond stage of sig­na­ture-gath­er­ing. The sys­tem in Mis­souri means the to­tal num­ber of sig­na­tures re­quired for bal­lot ac­cess will vary de­pend­ing upon which con­gres­sional dis­tricts spon­sors put to­gether to reach the to­tal of six, and in Ne­braska’s sys­tem pe­ti­tion­ers must mon­i­tor a con­stantly chang­ing num­ber while they are gath­er­ing sig­na­tures and hope that the pe­ti­tions they turn in meet the num­ber on the dead­line.

Sub­mis­sion and certification

The fi­nal stage of get­ting an ini­ti­a­tive on the bal­lot is sig­na­ture sub­mis­sion and cer­tifi­ca­tion. As with other stages, the ex­act pro­ce­dure varies from state to state. In most states, the sig­na­tures are sub­mit­ted to the Sec­re­tary of State. In some states, sig­na­tures are sub­mit­ted to city or county clerks or other elec­tion offi­cials. In Alaska, the sig­na­tures are sub­mit­ted to the Lieu­tenant Gover­nor. The pro­cess of sig­na­ture sub­mis­sion can be some­what idiosyn­cratic. For ex­am­ple, in Mas­sachusetts, sig­na­tures are sub­mit­ted to and pro­cessed by city clerks across the state. Once the sig­na­tures have been pro­cessed, ini­ti­a­tive spon­sors must re­trieve the pro­cessed sig­na­tures from each in­di­vi­d­ual office and then sub­mit them to the Sec­re­tary of State. In Ne­braska, the op­po­site is true. Sig­na­tures are sub­mit­ted to the Sec­re­tary of State, then di­vided and shipped to county clerks in each of Ne­braska’s 93 coun­ties. The county clerks are then re­spon­si­ble for ver­ify­ing the val­idity of the sig­na­tures.

There are three meth­ods for ver­ify­ing sig­na­tures: pre­sumed valid, ran­dom sam­pling, and full check. Only Ohio and Ok­la­homa ap­pear to pre­sume sig­na­tures gath­ered are valid un­less challenged in a law­suit. In other states, there are more oner­ous sig­na­ture ver­ifi­ca­tion pro­cesses which may im­pose a greater bur­den. Ari­zona, Cal­ifor­nia, Mis­souri, Ne­vada, Ore­gon, and Wash­ing­ton em­ploy ran­dom sam­pling: a small per­centage (typ­i­cally 3%-5%) of pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures are ran­domly checked for val­idity, then the val­idity rate of the sam­ple size is ex­trap­o­lated to the to­tal group of sig­na­tures to de­ter­mine the prob­a­ble num­ber of valid sig­na­tures. All other states uti­lize the full check method, mean­ing ev­ery sig­na­ture is scru­ti­nized for val­idity.

There are a num­ber of rea­sons a sig­na­ture might be in­val­i­dated. If the sig­na­ture is illeg­ible or du­pli­cated, or if the sig­na­tory’s name does not ap­pear on the state’s voter rolls, or if the sig­na­tory’s sig­na­ture doesn’t match the sig­na­ture on the sig­na­tory’s voter reg­is­tra­tion card, then the in­di­vi­d­ual sig­na­ture is thrown out. Whole pe­ti­tion sheets con­tain­ing many dozens of oth­er­wise valid sig­na­tures can also be in­val­i­dated, for ex­am­ple if the pe­ti­tion cir­cu­la­tor did not prop­erly com­plete the cir­cu­la­tor af­fi­davit or if the pe­ti­tion sheet was in­cor­rectly no­ta­rized. Be­cause in­val­i­dated sig­na­tures are fairly com­mon, ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns always aim to col­lect more sig­na­tures than are re­quired to be cer­tified for the bal­lot (nor­mally around 20% more).


This es­say is a pro­ject of Re­think Pri­ori­ties. It was writ­ten by Peter Hur­ford and Ja­son Schukraft. Thanks to Josh Balk, Chloe Cock­burn, Mar­cus A. Davis, Neil Dul­laghan, Aaron Ham­lin, David Moss, Michael Sad­owsky, Michael St. Jules, Jonas Vol­lmer, and Daniela R. Wald­horn for helpful feed­back. If you like our work, please con­sider sub­scribing to our newslet­ter. You can see all our work to date here.

Works Cited

An­der­son, E. C., & Bar­rett, L. F. (2016). Affec­tive be­liefs in­fluence the ex­pe­rience of eat­ing meat. PLoS One, 11(8), e0160424.

Bashir, N. Y., Lock­wood, P., Chas­teen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic im­pact of ac­tivists: Nega­tive stereo­types re­duce so­cial change in­fluence. Euro­pean Jour­nal of So­cial Psy­chol­ogy, 43(7), 614-626.

Damore, D. F., Bowler, S., & Ni­chol­son, S. P. (2012). Agenda set­ting by di­rect democ­racy: Com­par­ing the ini­ti­a­tive and the refer­en­dum. State Poli­tics & Policy Quar­terly, 12(4), 367-393.

Damore, D. F., & Ni­chol­son, S. P. (2014). Mo­bi­liz­ing in­ter­ests: group par­ti­ci­pa­tion and com­pe­ti­tion in di­rect democ­racy elec­tions. Poli­ti­cal Be­hav­ior, 36(3), 535-552.

Graves, L. (2012). Lo­cal Bal­lot Ini­ti­a­tives: How cit­i­zens change laws with clip­boards, con­ver­sa­tions, and cam­paigns. Lucy Burns In­sti­tute: Madi­son, Wis­con­sin.

Lutz, B. J., & Lutz, J. M. (2011). In­ter­est groups and pro-an­i­mal rights leg­is­la­tion. So­ciety & An­i­mals, 19(3), 261-277.

Mat­susaka, J. G. (2018). Public policy and the ini­ti­a­tive and refer­en­dum: a sur­vey with some new ev­i­dence. Public Choice, 174(1-2), 107-143.

Mat­susaka, J. G., & Hasen, R. L. (2010). Ag­gres­sive en­force­ment of the sin­gle sub­ject rule. Elec­tion Law Jour­nal, 9(4), 399-419.

Kauf­mann, B., Büchi, R., & Braun, N. (2010). Guide­book to di­rect democ­racy in Switzer­land and be­yond. The Ini­ti­a­tive & Referen­dum In­sti­tute Europe.

Primo, D. M. (2013). In­for­ma­tion at the mar­gin: cam­paign fi­nance dis­clo­sure laws, bal­lot is­sues, and voter knowl­edge. Elec­tion Law Jour­nal, 12(2), 114-129.

Smith­son, K., Corbin, M., Lusk, J. L., & Nor­wood, F. B. (2014). Pre­dict­ing state-wide votes on bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives to ban bat­tery cages and ges­ta­tion crates. Jour­nal of Agri­cul­tural and Ap­plied Eco­nomics, 46(1), 107-124.

Staszewski, G. (2013). Con­tes­ta­tory Democ­racy and the In­ter­pre­ta­tion of Pop­u­lar Ini­ti­a­tives. Se­ton Hall L. Rev., 43, 1165.

Ton­sor, G. T., & Olynk, N. J. (2011). Im­pacts of an­i­mal well‐be­ing and welfare me­dia on meat de­mand. Jour­nal of Agri­cul­tural Eco­nomics, 62(1), 59-72.

Yoon, Y., Gürhan‐Canli, Z., & Sch­warz, N. (2006). The effect of cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity (CSR) ac­tivi­ties on com­pa­nies with bad rep­u­ta­tions. Jour­nal of con­sumer psy­chol­ogy, 16(4), 377-390.


  1. Peter Hur­ford pre­vi­ously gave a talk on bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives as a path­way for EA policy at EA Global San Fran­cisco 2019. ↩︎

  2. Some of the re­search in this se­ries will only be re­leased pri­vately to trusted in­di­vi­d­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions to avoid pub­li­ciz­ing sen­si­tive strate­gic in­for­ma­tion. ↩︎

  3. That is to say, we think there is a de­cent chance that upon fur­ther re­flec­tion we would come to think that some of the po­ten­tial ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns we dis­cuss in this post would be net-nega­tive in value. ↩︎

  4. The scope of this re­port ex­cludes ad­vi­sory-only bal­lot mea­sures, which are non-bind­ing. Ad­vi­sory mea­sures are typ­i­cally used by leg­is­la­tors to gauge pub­lic opinion on a per­ti­nent ques­tion. In the U.S. they are most com­monly em­ployed at the lo­cal level, though they have oc­ca­sion­ally been used at the state-level as well. ↩︎

  5. Although bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives are sup­posed to be­come law au­to­mat­i­cally, there are a num­ber of ways elected leg­is­la­tive bod­ies can at­tempt to slow im­ple­men­ta­tion or mod­ify the in­tent of the ini­ti­a­tive. Court challenges can also de­lay or block im­ple­men­ta­tion. We dis­cuss these challenges later in the post. ↩︎

  6. Some au­thors re­fer to the former as cit­i­zens ini­ti­a­tives and the lat­ter as leg­is­la­tively-referred ini­ti­a­tives. ↩︎

  7. Another differ­ence is that a refer­en­dum can be ei­ther bind­ing or merely ad­vi­sory, whereas an ini­ti­a­tive, in the sense de­scribed here, is always bind­ing. ↩︎

  8. At the city level, the same dis­tinc­tion is marked by or­di­nance ini­ti­a­tives ver­sus char­ter ini­ti­a­tives. ↩︎

  9. In Novem­ber 2018 ten mea­sures made it to the bal­lot, seven of which were ap­proved. ↩︎

  10. Ini­ti­a­tives are pos­si­ble at the fed­eral level in Switzer­land but not in the United States. ↩︎

  11. Mat­susaka 2018 writes, “Per­haps the most fa­mous ini­ti­a­tive his­tor­i­cally is Cal­ifor­nia’s tax-cut­ting Propo­si­tion 13 in 1978 that sparked a na­tional tax re­volt” (110). Sys­temic flow-through effects like this can eas­ily al­ter the net im­pact of a bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign, though it’s difficult to pre­dict and quan­tify such effects. ↩︎

  12. Of course, it’s not a perfect heuris­tic. There may be sub­jects with no his­tory of suc­cess that nev­er­the­less look fea­si­ble now. (After all, ev­ery sub­ject’s first win is by defi­ni­tion with­out prece­dent.) ↩︎

  13. See this Open Philan­thropy con­ver­sa­tion with Lewis Bol­lard for more de­tail. ↩︎

  14. It’s worth not­ing that there were no veal crates in Cal­ifor­nia at the time the ini­ti­a­tive passed. ↩︎

  15. AB 1437 trig­gered a num­ber of le­gal challenges. See the sec­tion on bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive limi­ta­tions for fur­ther dis­cus­sion. ↩︎

  16. See this 2015 HSUS an­nual re­port and this 2017 Open Philan­thropy blog post for more on the con­nec­tion be­tween Prop 2 and cor­po­rate cage-free cam­paigns. ↩︎

  17. Prop 2 in­spired a similar ini­ti­a­tive in Mas­sachusetts in 2016. Ques­tion 3 banned the pro­duc­tion and sale of eggs, veal, and pork from an­i­mals con­fined in bat­tery cages, veal crates, and ges­ta­tion crates, and, like Cal­ifor­nia, the Mas­sachusetts ban also ap­plies to an­i­mals raised in other states to be sold in the state. ↩︎

  18. Prop 12 also changed the way the new reg­u­la­tions would be en­forced. Prop 2 hadn’t in­cluded any im­ple­men­ta­tion lan­guage au­tho­riz­ing a statewide de­part­ment to en­force it, so the bur­den of polic­ing the new re­stric­tions fell to lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies, which largely ig­nored the re­quire­ments. Prop 12 charged both the Cal­ifor­nia Depart­ment of Food and Agri­cul­ture and the Cal­ifor­nia Depart­ment of Public Health with im­ple­men­ta­tion and en­force­ment. ↩︎

  19. Sen­tience Poli­tics has also qual­ified an ini­ti­a­tive in the Swiss Can­ton of Basel-Stadt to grant non­hu­man pri­mates con­sti­tu­tional rights to life and bod­ily and men­tal in­tegrity. The vote is ex­pected some­time in 2021. Even if un­suc­cess­ful, so-called per­son­hood ini­ti­a­tives such as this might aid moral cir­cle ex­pan­sion. ↩︎

  20. Although this sec­tion fo­cuses on farmed an­i­mal welfare, wild an­i­mal welfare has also had some mod­er­ate suc­cess at the bal­lot box. For ex­am­ple, Wash­ing­ton’s 2015 Ini­ti­a­tive 1401 bans trade in en­dan­gered species and their parts (such as ivory) in the state. 1401 in­spired a similar ini­ti­a­tive in Ore­gon that was suc­cess­fully passed the fol­low­ing year. Although the num­ber of an­i­mals af­fected by these ini­ti­a­tives is small, they may help grow the wild an­i­mal welfare move­ment in the same way that early vic­to­ries in Florida and Ari­zona did for the farmed an­i­mal welfare move­ment. ↩︎

  21. Im­prov­ing the way re­dis­trict­ing is con­ducted is an­other plau­si­ble method for re­duc­ing par­ti­san­ship, and sev­eral re­dis­trict­ing re­forms have re­cently been put to vot­ers via bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. In 2018 five states (Colorado, Michi­gan, Mis­souri, Ohio, and Utah) voted to limit poli­ti­cal con­trol over and in­crease the trans­parency of the re­dis­trict­ing pro­cess. ↩︎

  22. Other al­ter­na­tive vot­ing meth­ods with similar aims have re­cently been put to vot­ers via the ini­ti­a­tive pro­cess. Maine adopted ranked-choice vot­ing in 2016 (though it has yet to im­ple­ment it) and New York City just passed a ranked-choice vot­ing bal­lot mea­sure in Novem­ber 2019. In 2020, ini­ti­a­tives could put ranked-choice vot­ing on the bal­lot in Alaska, Mas­sachusetts, and Ne­vada. STAR vot­ing was on the bal­lot in Lane County, Ore­gon in 2018, but it failed. ↩︎

  23. Four of the five bal­lot mea­sures dis­cussed in this para­graph were placed on the bal­lot by the re­spec­tive lo­cal gov­ern­ments and thus were not tech­ni­cally cit­i­zen’s ini­ti­a­tives. (Seat­tle is the ex­cep­tion.) Still, the ex­am­ples are rele­vant be­cause they show sup­port for cam­paign fi­nance re­form at the bal­lot box. ↩︎

  24. What ex­actly con­sti­tutes the com­ple­tion of a sen­tence is cur­rently un­der le­gal re­view. See the sec­tion on bal­lot ini­ti­a­tive limi­ta­tions for more dis­cus­sion. ↩︎

  25. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port from The Wash­ing­ton Eco­nomics Group, “restor­ing the el­i­gi­bil­ity to vote for el­i­gible felons has the po­ten­tial to in­crease their suc­cess­ful rein­te­gra­tion into… the econ­omy through gain­ful em­ploy­ment. [...] With higher-in­comes, el­i­gible felons would be able to af­ford liv­ing in less-dis­ad­van­taged ar­eas, which is as­so­ci­ated with bet­ter em­ploy­ment out­comes af­ter re­lease and less re­ci­di­vism” (6). ↩︎

  26. The ini­ti­a­tives were suc­cess­ful in Lucerne and Zurich and re­jected in Basel. The origi­nal aim of these pro­pos­als was to pro­mote an­i­mal welfare and moral cir­cle ex­pan­sion. Thanks to Jonas Vol­lmer for bring­ing this to my at­ten­tion. ↩︎

  27. Tech­ni­cally, WA SJR 8200 was a leg­is­la­tively-referred con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment, not a cit­i­zen’s ini­ti­a­tive. ↩︎

  28. Wash­ing­ton lies along the Cas­ca­dia Sub­duc­tion Zone and is thus sus­cep­ti­ble to earth­quake-trig­gered tsunamis. How­ever, the pro­vi­sions that the bal­lot mea­sure es­tab­lish could be in­voked dur­ing any dis­aster. ↩︎

  29. Wash­ing­ton’s con­sti­tu­tion already had a similar pro­vi­sion that ap­plied in case of en­emy at­tack on the state, so there is a le­gal prece­dent for this sort of amend­ment. ↩︎

  30. Ver­mont (2018) and Illinois (2019) le­gal­ized mar­ijuana through the nor­mal leg­is­la­tive pro­cess. ↩︎

  31. Thanks to Michael Sad­owsky for this point. ↩︎

  32. Thanks to Chloe Cock­burn for this point. ↩︎

  33. For ex­am­ples of the re­volv­ing door in the U.S. agri­cul­ture in­dus­try, see here and here. ↩︎

  34. A pe­ti­tion drive man­age­ment com­pany is a for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that spe­cial­izes in col­lect­ing sig­na­tures for bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives. ↩︎

  35. Damore and Ni­chol­son add in a later pa­per, “our re­sults offer an in­ter­est­ing com­ple­ment to work demon­strat­ing that bal­lot mea­sures ad­dress­ing so­cial is­sues in­crease voter aware­ness (Ni­chol­son 2003) and turnout (Big­gers 2011). Aside from me­dia at­ten­tion, there is lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of what causes these effects. Our anal­y­sis sug­gests one po­ten­tial driver—the ac­tivity of groups. Ob­vi­ously, this claim is spec­u­la­tive, but it does sug­gest an av­enue for fu­ture re­search” (547). ↩︎

  36. Jonas Vol­lmer, chief or­ga­nizer of the ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign and au­thor of the cited post, now be­lieves some of this rea­son­ing was partly mis­guided (per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion). In par­tic­u­lar, he be­lieves that he un­der­es­ti­mated the risk of a pub­lic de­bate about EA go­ing very badly and that in the ter­minol­ogy of the Aware­ness/​In­cli­na­tion Model of move­ment growth, the cited post over-em­pha­sized aware­ness at the ex­pense of in­cli­na­tion. Thus, Jonas no longer en­dorses the claim that “the move­ment-build­ing benefits alone would make the ini­ti­a­tive a worth­while pro­ject.” ↩︎

  37. More spec­u­la­tively, it is some­times said that pro­po­nents of mar­riage equal­ity gal­va­nized op­po­si­tion as of­ten as sup­port, that anti-to­bacco drives do not per­suade smok­ers to give up the habit, and that ad­ver­tis­ing for an­i­mal welfare re­forms re­duces the ap­peal of those re­forms to con­ser­va­tives. ↩︎

  38. Ad­di­tion­ally, ini­ti­a­tives also of­ten re­quire the sup­port of a lo­cal group (even if the op­por­tu­nity was iden­ti­fied by a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion), lest the cam­paign be ac­cused of be­ing run by out­siders. This of­ten means hav­ing to sup­port the lo­cal group’s in­fras­truc­ture so that they can be the main voice. Thanks to Aaron Ham­lin for this point. ↩︎

  39. Bear in mind that it’s pos­si­ble some ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns could have spent sig­nifi­cantly less and still have been suc­cess­ful. Ini­ti­a­tive cam­paigns tend to spend about as much as they raise. So even if an ini­ti­a­tive cam­paign es­ti­mates that spend­ing $10 mil­lion will be enough to se­cure ap­proval, if the cam­paign hap­pens to raise $12 mil­lion, it is prob­a­bly not go­ing to re­turn the fi­nal $2 mil­lion. ↩︎

  40. Graph credit: Neil Dul­laghan ↩︎

  41. Neil Dul­laghan performed the re­search for this sec­tion. ↩︎

  42. See this Bal­lot­pe­dia page for a list of cam­paign fi­nance web­sites for states that al­low bal­lot mea­sures. ↩︎

  43. Post-elec­tion con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity challenges only ap­ply to ini­ti­a­tives that are ap­proved. ↩︎

  44. The vague­ness charged stemmed from the fact that the ini­ti­a­tive did not spec­ify min­i­mum di­men­sions re­quired for com­pli­ance. A new ini­ti­a­tive, Cal­ifor­nia’s suc­cess­ful 2018 Propo­si­tion 12, rec­tified this con­cern by es­tab­lish­ing ex­act di­men­sions for veal calves, layer hens, and breed­ing pigs. ↩︎

  45. Th­ese am­bi­gui­ties are some­times the re­sult of in­ex­pe­rienced ini­ti­a­tive spon­sors with­out ac­cess to poli­ti­cal or statu­tory ex­per­tise us­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ately vague or im­pre­cise lan­guage. But some­times the am­bi­gui­ties are de­liber­ate and strate­gic (Staszewski 2013: 1167) ↩︎

  46. The to­tal num­ber of al­ter­a­tions is higher, but some­times an amend­ment is in­tro­duced to fur­ther the pur­poses of the ini­ti­a­tive and is thus sup­ported by the ini­ti­a­tive’s pro­po­nents. ↩︎

  47. Be­cause the changes be­come part of the state’s con­sti­tu­tion, ini­ti­ated con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments can­not be di­rectly amended or re­pealed by state leg­is­la­tures. ↩︎

  48. In Ari­zona, voter ap­proval is only re­quired for sub­stan­tial leg­is­la­tive changes. The leg­is­la­ture can make minor changes with a three-fourths su­per­ma­jor­ity vote. ↩︎

  49. De­spite deep pock­ets, the an­i­mal agri­cul­ture in­dus­try has yet to put up much re­sis­tance to an­i­mal welfare ini­ti­a­tives, though an­i­mal ad­vo­cates aren’t tak­ing any chances. Ac­cord­ing to data available from Bal­lot­pe­dia here, sup­port­ers of Prop 12 out­spent op­po­nents by about 30:1. ↩︎

  50. Eight states re­quire pre­limi­nary sig­na­tures to be col­lected prior to sub­mit­ting the pe­ti­tion for ap­proval, how­ever this re­quire­ment is sig­nifi­cantly less bur­den­some than the post-ap­proval re­quire­ment. Ohio and Ore­gon re­quire 1000 res­i­dent vot­ers to pre-sign the pe­ti­tion, Alaska 100, North Dakota 25, Idaho 20, Maine 5, Wy­oming 3, and Wash­ing­ton 1. ↩︎

  51. For ex­am­ple, of the 49 mea­sures since 2008 listed un­der “Treat­ment of An­i­mals” on Bal­lot­pe­dia, 22 of them did not make it onto the bal­lot be­cause of a failure to ob­tain and cer­tify the re­quired num­ber of sig­na­tures—this ac­counts for about half of all at­tempted an­i­mal mea­sures and ac­counts for 64.7% of an­i­mal mea­sures that did not make the bal­lot. ↩︎

  52. Per­centage re­quire­ments for sig­na­tures on ini­ti­ated con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments range from a low of 3 per­cent of to­tal votes cast for gov­er­nor in Mas­sachusetts (64,750 for 2020 bal­lot ac­cess), to a high of 15 per­cent of to­tal votes cast for gov­er­nor in Ari­zona (356,467 for 2020 bal­lot ac­cess) and Ok­la­homa (177,958 for 2020 bal­lot ac­cess). Once again, how­ever, thanks to its large pop­u­la­tion, Cal­ifor­nia has the high­est to­tal ac­tual sig­na­ture re­quire­ment for 2020 bal­lot ac­cess at 997,139 (equal to 8 per­cent of the votes cast for gov­er­nor in the last elec­tion). ↩︎