Initiative and Referendum

International Society for Animal Rights is often asked by its supporters what they can do to advance the cause of animal rights regarding a specific issue.

Take, for example, the animal rights issue to which this “Stop Devocalization Now” Project is devoted.

How can a citizen of Colorado, or any other state in the Union, obtain the enactment of a statute restricting devocalization?

There are three ways.  One, discussed in this site’s section entitled “Law and Legislation, Lobbying,” is by lobbying legislators.

There are two others, sadly underused—though powerful weapons in obtaining legislative relief for the suffering of animals.

Two other common mechanisms of legislative authority available to citizens of many . . . states . . . are the initiative and the referendum. They have become the subject of considerable interest group organizing in all of the states . . . .

Initiative is a two-part process specified in a state’s constitution that allows citizens to propose laws and constitutional amendments usually through signature gathering, and ultimately to adopt or reject these proposed laws during general elections. The process reflects the two main stages of regular legislation: proposal and adoption (or rejection).

Usually citizens groups consult with attorneys and other legislative and political advisors to draft a proposed law (an initiative), after which they submit it to the designated agency or office of state government responsible for review and ultimate placement on the ballot in the next general election. This responsibility typically resides either with a state’s secretary of state or its attorney general, who develops a summary and a label for placement on the ballot, and who estimates the fiscal impact (on taxes and spending) of the proposed law.

After this initial processing, supporters of the proposed initiative print petition sheets and circulate them for signature by registered voters. The various states allowing the initiative process require different numbers of signatures . . . .  If the minimum number of signatures are collected within a specific time period, they are submitted for examination of validity, after which the secretary of state certifies the proposition and assigns a place on the ballot for the next general election. If a simple majority of voters approve, then the initiative becomes a law.

A referendum is also a proposed law placed on the ballot for citizens to either approve or reject. The key difference from an initiative is that referenda (plural of referendum) are proposed by the legislature or by local governing bodies like city councils. In 1990, for instance, the Austin, Texas, city council placed a referendum on the ballot proposing municipal funding of the proposed Austin Convention Center. This drew widespread and often rancorous debate, but in the end gave Austinites a chance to participate in an important decision that would shape the character of their city.1

For an example of an initiative petition, see this site’s section entitled “Activism, Lobbying.”

For exhaustive state-by-state information about initiatives and referenda, see
1 With minor editorial changes, the following information has been taken from “Texas Politics” (