Initiative and Referendum, two methods of direct lawmaking by the people. These two devices of direct legislation are sometimes used where the voters have become too numerous or scattered to assemble in one meeting. Initiative and referendum are separate, but are usually found together. They do not replace the legislature, but supplement it. Many states and cities, and some countries, use these methods of direct lawmaking.

The initiative and referendum are generally viewed as an expansion of democracy, giving the people a chance to overrule the legislature when it disregards public opinion or bows to special interests or political bosses. However, there has been criticism that these processes reflect an unwarranted mistrust of representative government, give great power to well-organized groups, and present issues that often are too complex for the average citizen to decide.


The initiative is used in different forms. In the directinitiative the voters can originate and adopt laws directly. A citizen or organization drafts the proposed law and circulates a petition asking that it be submitted to a vote. A certain number of signatures are required on the petition, usually 3 to 15 per cent of the total vote cast in the preceding election. The petition is then presented to a designated official, who checks it to see that it is in proper form. If the petition meets all legal requirements, the proposed bill is submitted to popular vote. The governor cannot veto a law adopted by majority vote of the people.

In the indirectinitiative the petition and the proposed law are submitted to the legislature. If the legislature rejects the proposal, or fails to take action, the proposal goes to a popular vote, but sometimes a second petition is required before this can be done.

Twenty-two states have provisions for using the initiative in the lawmaking process and 18 states use this device for originating and adopting constitutional amendments. Many cities have the initiative for ordinances and charter amendments.


The referendum is more widely used than the initiative and is found in many forms. In referendum voting, laws and other measures are referred to the voters for approval or rejection. The people do not originate the measure on which they vote.

One form of the referendum is similar to the initiative. An individual or organization, by petition, forces a vote on a law already enacted by the legislature. Usually the percentage of signatures required for the referendum petition is less than for the initiative. If the majority of the voters disapprove of the act it is nullified. Twenty-four states use this form of referendum. Many cities also use the referendum.

A more common form of the referendum is used for ratifying proposed constitutions and constitutional amendments. Nearly every state uses the referendum in this form, and many cities use it for the adoption of charters and charter amendments. In all states except Delaware the legislature submits proposed amendments to referendum vote. In most states the legislature must ask the people to decide the question of calling a constitutional convention. Proposals of such a convention must be submitted to a second referendum vote.

States and local governments use still another form of referendum for bond issues and other financial measures. The legislature (or some other governmental body, such as a school board) proposes the bond issue, but it becomes effective only if approved by the voters.

Still another form of referendum is used under the agricultural adjustment laws of Congress. Farmers producing certain commodities vote on marketing quotas proposed by the government; the quotas become effective if approved by a two-thirds majority.


The initiative and referendum originated in the Swiss cantons during the Middle Ages. The referendum has been used throughout United States history in the adoption of state constitutions and amendments. The initiative was first adopted in 1777 by the Georgia constitution, which gave the people the exclusive right to propose constitutional changes.

The initiative and referendum were not used in the United States for lawmaking until South Dakota adopted them in 1898. Many other states joined the movement, particularly in the early 20th century. At about the same time, four Canadian provinces—Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan—enacted initiative statutes. All provinces, except Newfoundland, have utilized the referendum.

Some of the new states formed in Europe after World War I adopted the measures, as did some of the new nations created in Africa and Asia since World War II.