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Updated on September 2, 2010

Initiative, in government, is a method by which laws may be proposed by petition and submitted either to the legislative body for enactment, or directly to the people for adoption by vote, or possibly both. Like the referendum, it is a device for securing direct, popular participation in lawmaking instead of relying solely on representatives for this function. The initiative is rarely encountered on the national level; important exceptions are the constitutional initiative in Switzerland and the statutory initiative in Italy. More frequently, the initiative operates in regional and local governments; 20 states of the United States provide for the initiative in their constitutions.

Image by Billy Alexander
Image by Billy Alexander

Constitutional and Statutory Initiative

The term "constitutional initiative" refers to the amendment of the fundamental law of the governmental unit (national or state constitution or municipal charter) through the initiative device. The request for constitutional change may be phrased in the form of a completed text; or it may be expressed in general terms only, with the legislative body or a special convention working out the proposal along the lines requested in the petition. The term "statutory initiative" refers to the process by which voters adopt new state statutes and local ordinances or amend existing laws using the initiative device.

Direct and Indirect Initiative

Depending on the method of enactment, an initiative may be direct or indirect. In the first case, once the initiative petition has qualified, the proposed measure must be submitted to the electorate; in the second, the measure is referred first to the legislature. Should the legislative body enact a proposed law that it considered under the indirect initiative, the purpose of the law's proponents will have been achieved and there is no need for its submission to the electorate; however, if the measure is not approved in the form presented, in some jurisdictions the legislative body has the option of framing an alternative measure to be submitted to the voters.

Sometimes measures proposed by indirect initiative and enacted by the legislative body may be subject to executive veto. In some jurisdictions a statute proposed by initiative petition and adopted by popular vote may be subject to amendment by the legislative body.

Normally, more signatures are required on the petition for a constitutional initiative than for a statutory initiative. Similarly, in those jurisdictions with both direct and indirect forms of initiative, petitions for the former must contain a larger number of signatures.

The Initiative and the Democratic System

In the United States 12 states provide only for direct initiative, 5 only for indirect, and 3 for both forms. State constitutions providing for the initiative do not conflict with the federal constitution's guaranty to the states of a republican form of government. However, excessive reliance on the initiative device could pose the danger of undermining representative government.

The initiative undoubtedly has facilitated the responsiveness of government both by permitting popular participation in lawmaking and by serving as a stimulus to action on the part of legislative bodies. It has not proven a panacea assuring democratic government, as some of its proponents have claimed it would do; nor have its opponents' prophecies of its dire effects been fulfilled.


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