What is an Initiative in Government? - Definition & Examples

Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

What do you do if the government isn't actually representing your interests? One option is the initiative. In this lesson, we'll see how initiatives work and consider their role in a representative government.

Taking the Initiative

Here's how government is supposed to work in the United States: the people elect representatives, those representatives act on behalf of the people, then they pass laws that reflect the people's wishes. Pretty nice, right? Here's the problem: nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Sometimes, elected representatives change their minds, exaggerate their commitment to an issue to get elected, or simply can't agree with the other representatives about certain laws. What do the people do then?

What can you do when politicians will not listen to your demands?

Luckily, the average citizen can get things done without having to rely on a legislature of elected representatives. Chief amongst these options is something called the initiative, a process by which citizens can place proposed laws on the ballot without the legislature voting on it first. It's an elegant way to ensure that even when the people's representatives aren't cooperating, the wishes of the people are still represented.

How Initiatives Work

Initiatives let private citizens propose laws without the legislature. The first state to develop this solution was South Dakota, which introduced initiatives back in 1898. Since then, roughly two dozen other states have adopted something similar.

The process for introducing and voting on an initiative varies by state, but in general it begins with the filing of a petition. This petition states the nature of the proposed initiative and is then reviewed by the appropriate authorities to ensure it is constitutionally appropriate. If everything is in order, the petition gets an official ballot title and summary, just like most bills proposed in the legislature.

This is where it gets fun. The citizens sponsoring the initiative must acquire a certain number of signatures from other citizens, thus demonstrating that the initiative is supported by a number of people and not just one or two random enthusiasts. A petition's required signatures changes by state, but today people can use social media and other online platforms to boost the visibility of an initiative.

It is up to the citizens to promote their initiative and collect signatures on it

Direct and Indirect Initiatives

Once the initiative has received enough signatures, it can be voted on. However, the way this works changes by the laws of that state. Some states allow direct initiatives. When a direct initiative receives enough signatures, it goes directly onto the voting ballot. If it gets enough votes, it becomes law.

States that don't recognize direct initiatives may recognize indirect initiatives. An indirect initiative doesn't go straight to the ballot; it goes to the legislature instead. In this system, the legislature still vote on the proposed statute.

The blue and yellow states are those that recognize initiatives in the USA

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Initiatives in Government:

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Make a chart, poster, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists the general steps involved in introducing an initiative. At the top of your graphic organizer, explain what an initiative is.

Example: The first step is the filing of a petition regarding the issue that the initiative is about.

List Prompt:

Make a list of ten states that recognize initiatives. You can refer to the color-coded map provided in the lesson, but try to recall as many from memory as you can.

Example: Colorado.

Essay Prompt 1:

In approximately two to three paragraphs, write an essay that describes direct initiatives and indirect initiatives, and compares and contrasts them. Your essay should also explain how states can make sure that their legislatures do not ignore indirect initiatives.

Example: Direct initiatives go right to the state's voters themselves, while indirect initiatives first go through the state legislature.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of approximately two to three paragraphs that explains the roles played by citizens in initiatives and why citizens are so important in initiatives. In this context, consider how initiatives showcase the features of a democratic government.

Example: Citizens themselves have to circulate petitions to obtain signatures on initiatives.

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