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September 2013 - Volume 18, Number 3


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Secure Liberty With Local Initiative and Referendum

by Leslie Graves and Geoff Pallay

Glenn Vodhanel is not a candidate, a campaign manager, a government official, or a city employee. But on the night of November 6, 2012, after the ballots in his hometown of Brea, California, had been counted, Vodhanel was celebrating a victory. He had brought government reform to his small community – without requiring the help of elected officials who so often combat reform.


Vodhanel popped the champagne cork when he learned that voters in Brea had resoundingly approved his brainchild, Measure T. A simple measure that places a cap on the salary of the city manager in Brea, Measure T was on the ballot because Vodhanel collected signatures on petitions to get it on the city ballot.


Five months earlier in San Diego, city voters had approved San Diego Measure B, which also earned its spot on the city ballot because supporters collected signatures on petitions. That vote was a decisive victory for the local government pension-reform movement. The day after the election, a front-page story in The New York Times speculated that Measure B might start a trend in financially troubled cities across the country.


Vodhanel didn’t set out to change the laws of Brea with a ballot initiative. In fact, he didn’t even know what a ballot initiative was when he learned that the city manager was drawing an annual salary of $341,000. When he tried to speak with city officials about his concerns, he was met with a “culture of disdain” and “an environment of condescension.” He heard about a nearby city that had placed a similar initiative on its local ballot. After many hours of work over several months, Vodhanel’s concern was put to a vote and approved by a majority of voters.


Older libertarians and conservatives fondly remember California’s Proposition 13 property tax limit vote in 1978. That statewide ballot initiative was the result of a brushfire tax revolt in California, and its success sparked tax-limitation brushfires in other states. Proposition 13 is why fiscal conservatives often use statewide ballot initiatives as a tool to put forward policy reforms.


However, there is much less awareness among the politically active that the initiative and referendum process is also available in many cities.


Though the statewide ballot initiative process is available in two dozen states, 48 states have at least one city that allows its citizens to place prospective laws on the ballot by collecting signatures on petitions. Of the 10 largest cities in each state, about 70 percent of them grant this right to their citizens. The tool that Glenn Vodhanel used to circumvent the legislative process and put an issue straight on his local ballot is available to millions of Americans, in hundreds of poorly managed cities.


Ballotpedia has compiled information about the local initiative and referendum process in each state to build public awareness about this option for positive policy reform. Ballotpedia has built 50 state-specific webpages that provide complete detail on which jurisdictions allow local ballot initiatives, how many signatures are required to qualify a local measure on the ballot, how long you can circulate petitions, subject restrictions on the types of laws that can be changed through the local initiative, and much more.


We’ve also published a guide to walk activists through the steps of the process, from drafting the language of the proposed law to submitting the final petition and requisite signatures to the appropriate authority. The booklet, Local Ballot Initiatives: How citizens change laws with clipboards, conversations, and campaigns, is available as a free download at


For years, organizations have tried to work with politicians to enact positive reform. But with the local ballot initiative, grassroots organizations can help effect change without the consent of the gatekeepers who so often keep change at bay.


Leslie Graves is the President of the Lucy Burns Institute and Geoff Pallay is the Director of Research.


This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of State Policy Network's SPN News and is reprinted with permission.


LIMITS is one of our quarterly membership newsletters, arriving in March, June, September, and December. It consists of short articles and essays on protection of human rights by limiting the powers of government.


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