October 24, 2012
Colorado-ballot

Colorado’s Election Ballot, Initiatives, Referendums

In Colorado, we get to vote not only on candidates but also on policies. We are one of 24 states that has some kind of initiative and referendum process. It gives voters more of a say, but it does make voting a bit more complicated.

What’s an Initiative?

An initiative is a proposal that originates with citizens. Proponents have an idea, write it up in legal language, and gather petition signatures from across the state. How many? For the 2012 election, it was 86,105 signatures. (Technically, it’s 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for Secretary of State in the previous general election.)

What’s a Referendum?

A referendum is a proposal that comes from the Legislature and is referred to citizens for a yes or no vote.

Initiatives and referenda can do one of two things: They can amend the state Constitution, in which case they are called “Amendments,” or they can amend our state statutes (that is, laws), in which case they are called “Propositions.”

What’s on Colorado’s Ballot?

We have two initiatives and one referendum on the ballot this year. All would amend the state Constitution. Referendum S (referenda are named with letters) would change some personnel procedures for state government jobs. Initiatives are given numbers.

Amendment 64: Legalize Marijuana.

Amendment 64 has gotten a lot of press; it would legalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by people over 21. It would also regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. In 2000, Colorado voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. But in 2006 voters rejected an amendment similar to 64. If 64 passes, marijuana possession will be legal under state law, but it would still be illegal under federal law.

Amendment 65: Campaign Finance Reform.

Amendment 65 proposes to put Colorado on record in support of strong campaign finance reform. Amendment 65 is largely symbolic and would not legally mandate, only encourage, reform. However, supporters argue that, given the increasing influence of big money in campaigns, even symbolic action is helpful.

Where to Find Information.

It is always a bit of a slog to figure out how to vote on initiatives. Amendments 64 and 65 raise complex issues, but there are plenty of resources out there to help us make informed choices. The state mails a “Blue Book” to every registered voter, which explains the amendments in detail and offers arguments both for and against. The League of Women Voters has published a booklet called “Ballot Issues 2012.” It is available online or in your public library. Many newspapers have published explanatory articles as well as pro and con arguments on their pages and websites. And groups promoting or opposing initiatives usually have websites.

Other States Consider Issues, Too.

Elsewhere in the country, three states (Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Oregon) are considering initiatives regarding marijuana. A referendum banning same-sex marriage is on the Minnesota ballot, while the state of Washington has a referendum to allow same-sex marriage. An assisted suicide initiative is up in Massachusetts. Several states are voting on one of the most common topics for initiatives: taxes. These are just examples. Really, initiatives and referenda are as numerous as the states that allow them.

Why do we have Initiatives?

We’ve had this initiative process in Colorado since 1910, when the populist sentiment of the “Progressive Era” pushed states to create more “direct democracy.”

The process has both supporters and detractors. Supporters argue that more direct citizen input on policy results in better government. People themselves, not their elected representatives, know what’s best for them. Initiatives can increase voter interest and turnout. Sometimes the voters can take bold action that state legislatures are not able or willing to take.

Detractors argue that too many initiatives can clog our ballots. Three this year may be manageable, but what about years when we’ve had eight or 10 or 12 of them? Does that put too great a burden on voters? And government by initiative can result in scattershot and poorly planned policies. For example, in Colorado we’ve gotten ourselves into a bind by both limiting the power of state and local government to tax and mandating that government spend in certain areas.

What do you think about initiatives and referenda? Do you like them?

About the author:

Jeff Borg is a Political Science faculty member at Front Range Community College-Larimer Campus. An avid hiker and an ordained minister, he teaches everything from American Government to International Relations.

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