What is a Referendum?

What is a Referendum and Why Does it Matter? 

A referendum gives the people the opportunity to oppose something that the legislature has passed. It matters because it gives the general public the opportunity to accept or reject decisions made by the legislature. If there is legislation that you feel strongly about, it is possible to turn it over with a referendum. Referendums can also be made to make constitutional changes at the local or state government level. 

History of the Word Referendum

The word referendum comes from the Latin referee, which means to carry back. Referendums allow the people to get back the decision. It is when a decision must be carried back to the people to decide.

Types of Referendums

There are two types of referendums:

Legislative Referendum: The legislature puts the issue on an ballot and lets the public vote

Popular Referendum: Citizens come together and get enough signatures to put the issue on a ballot.

Utah’s History with Propositions

Utah has actually been doing propositions and initiatives longer than most states. Utah first devised a proposition and initiative process in 1900, making it the second state to adopt the process.

Even though the initiative and proposition process was created, that didn’t mean it was easy to use. In the 1910’s they were waiting for some legislation to go through and tried to get it to go faster but they were told that in order to do a petition each person had to sign that petition in front of someone who could put them under oath. Luckily, after World War II, this requirement was finally eliminated.

An initiative didn’t actually happen until 1960, 60 years after the process was adopted. The reason for the initiative was concerns about the sheriff’s department and how people were hired. It created a merit-based system for hiring and retaining sheriffs. It was started by the people and voted on and approved.

Initiatives have changed a bit over the past 30 years. Hunters groups were concerned about the possibility of propositions affecting hunting laws.  They didn’t want to risk someone taking away their rights to hunt so they introduced Prop 5 in 1998 which ensured that no changes to hunting could be made without a ⅔ vote. They also changed the numbers necessary to file an initiative. 

Utah’s Four Successful Initiatives

Utah has passed a total of 4 initiatives. There have been attempts to pass 20 initiatives but ¾ of them failed.

The success initiatives were :

  1. 2000 Marijuana Initiative: This initiative was about the forfeiture of property after a drug arrest. It limits the amount of belongings that police can take from drug offenders
  2. 2000 English as Official language initiative: This initiative officially named English as the state language It also required the use of state funds to help teach people English. This was a initiated state statute
  3. 1976 End Compulsory Floridations INitiative: This ended the mandatory fluoridation of water and it was a citizen initiative. 
  4. 1960 Initiative A: This initiative was discussed above and created a merit-based system for hiring in the sheriff’s department.This was a citizen Initiative. 

A Famous Proposition: Prop 8 in California

A famous example of a successful proposition was Prop 8 in California. Prop 8 began when a same-sex marriage ban was determined by the California Surpreme Court to be unconstitutional. The California Supreme Court was almost split in their decision with a 4-3 vote. This decision was made on May 15, 2008.

Quickly after the decision was made, people began to take action to create an initiative. They gathered adequate signatures and Prop 8 was created and qualified to be voted on in the November election.

In order to get on the ballot for the state of California, they needed 8% of the population (based on the number of votes for governor in 2006). They needed about 600,000 signatures and they got 1,100,00 signatures. There was a lot of canvassing and campaigning in preparation for the vote

. On November 4, 2008 Proposition 8 passed with a vote of 52% to 48%. This led to a new provision being added to the California Constitution that stated, “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The very next day, same-sex marriages were stopped.

After the passing of Prop 8, it was determined by the Supreme Court that Prop 8 was unconstitutional. However, it took until 2013 for same-sex marriage to occur again in the state of California.

What is the Process to Make a Referendum?

Start with the Initiative

Referendums are a part of the proposition and initiative process. Before you have a referendum, you must first have an initiative.

There are two types of initiatives: 

  • Constitutional initiatives are related to the constitution of a specific state or county. They are initiatives that are created in the hopes of making changes to the constitution.
  • Statutory initiatives are related to statutes or laws. 

In some states, the initiative first has to go to the legislature before it can be passed. In other states, it can go from an initiative directly to a referendum to be voted on. The initiative process is the way that the public can make laws and also make changes to the state constitution. 

As part of the initiative process, the public will create a proposition or “prop” for the change they want.

First they have to create a petition and gather the necessary signatures to file a prop. When they have enough signatures, then the prop will be put on a ballot and people can vote. The entire electorate gets the change to vote on a referendum.

How Do I Create a Referendum?

Now that you understand WHAT a referendum is and the process, let’s talk about how you make a referendum.

As mentioned in grass-roots lobbying, for any public-initiated changes, you need to get a lot of people involved in your cause. You need a large body of people that are advocating for the cause so that you can ensure that you get enough signatures. For the state of Utah, you will need to go through a process before you can begin collecting signatures:

Step 1: Determine the number of signatures that you will need. This will depend on your district so you will want to contact your county clerk to find out the exact number.

Step 2: File an Application: Within 7 days of the law passing, you must fill out a form from the clerk stating your intent to file a referendum. This form must be signed by five Utah residents who have voted in previous elections and the signatures must be notarized. You will also need to include a copy of the law or policy that you are concerned about.

Step 3: Local Government Review:  When your form is submitted two groups will review it. One group will review it to determine the cost for your request. This is called a fiscal and legal impact estimate. They will determine what will be required to make the changes. Another group will review it to see if it is something that can be legally voted on.  They will also determine if the issue is administrative or legislative. If it is administrative, it is not valid for a referendum.

Step 4: Proposition Information Brochure: If the government determines that it can be referred to voting, they will present an informational brochure that includes the cost analysis and the information about the proposed changes. 

Step 5: Collect Signatures Petition: If they decide that they could put it to a vote, then you can create a petition and begin collecting signatures. They have to be compiled and formatted in a specific way, as per the county clerk’s instructions.

Step 6:  Submit for Verification: The county clerk will verify the petition signatures. Then they will review it to ensure it meets the required number of signatures. 

Step 7: Create the Ballot Title: 20 days from the time that the petition is submitted, the county attorney will need to craft a ballot title. It must encompass the issue without showing favor toward either side. Then the attorney will file the title with the clerk. 

Step 8: Evaluate the Petition: The clerk will evaluate the petition one last time to ensure that the signatures are valid and that it fits the requirements.

Step 9: Law Placed on Hold: Once the petition has been deemed valid, the law will be placed on hold until an election can be held. 

Step 10: Information Sent to Everyone: At this point, it is the county’s responsibility to inform the community about the issue and upcoming election. The informational material must be 

Step 11: Election: Finally, there will be an election with the referendum on the ballot. People will vote to see if the change will be made.

Getting Help with Referendums

The referendum process can get confusing. There are quite a few steps to go through. The most difficult part, though, is building public awareness about the issue so you can successfully complete the petition process. 

The Lockhart Group has extensive experience with legislative matters, as well as working with the public to build public awareness. We can help you with the initiative process and the successful creation of a referendum to go on the ballot. Contact us for more information.