How Do Ballot Initiatives Work?

In 26 states, citizens can actually put issues on the ballot. Here’s how it works in Ohio and how it doesn’t in Kentucky.

Since the U.S. is a representative democracy, we rely on elected officials to pass laws, manage budgets, and amend city charters and state constitutions. If we’re displeased with their efforts (or lack of effort), we choose new ones at the next election. In 26 states, however, citizens have additional tools to help set public policy: the ballot initiative (to propose new laws or amendments) and the referendum (to repeal or uphold laws passed by the legislature). Like the nation’s split, our region sees completely different approaches in Ohio and Kentucky.

Illustration by Katie Edwards

Easy in Ohio

The secretary of state offers a step-by-step guide, Ohio Ballot Questions and Issues Handbook, to help citizens place questions on their township, city, county, or statewide ballot—including dozens of ballot language templates. Download it here: The trickiest hurdles to clear are how many petition signatures you need in order to get your question on the ballot (in general, at least 10 percent of the total votes cast for governor in your jurisdiction in the last Ohio gubernatorial election) and how far ahead of an election the signatures must be submitted to your county’s board of elections (in general, at least 90 days).

Difficult in Kentucky

Only the Kentucky legislature can place initiatives on the statewide ballot, and only in even-numbered years. There is a limited ability for citizens of Kentucky cities to repeal a local law via referendum, but only if that law was passed with a clause stating it could be repealed by a public vote. Check with your county clerk for details.

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