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Executive summary

Ballot initiatives are a form of direct democracy in which citizens can gather signatures to qualify a proposed piece of legislation for the ballot, which is then subject to a binding up-or-down vote by the general electorate. Ballot initiatives are possible in Switzerland, Taiwan, many U.S. states and cities, and elsewhere. Ballot initiatives appear to maintain several advantages over more traditional policy lobbying, including lower barriers to entry and more direct control over the final legislation. However, the ultimate cost-effectiveness of a ballot initiative campaign depends on several factors, many of which are difficult to specify precisely. Although ballot initiatives hold enough promise to warrant additional investigation, it is not yet possible to say to what extent ballot initiative campaigns ought to be pursued by the effective altruism community.

Introduction and context

This post is the first[1] in Rethink Priorities’ planned series on using ballot initiatives to advance effective altruist (EA) causes.[2] In this post we explain what a ballot initiative is, what might feasibly be accomplished with ballot initiatives, and why ballot initiatives deserve attention as a potentially effective intervention across a number of different cause areas. We offer some basic details on the ballot initiative process as well as some limitations that any organization considering a ballot initiative ought to be aware of. Finally we outline some areas of future research that we and some like-minded groups intend to explore.

To be clear, this post does not attempt to argue that ballot initiatives are a cost-effective intervention, either in general or for any particular cause area. Such an argument would require a more detailed analysis than we have as yet undertaken. Although we discuss many past and potential initiative campaigns, this discussion should not be construed as an endorsement of the effectiveness or even the positive value of the initiative campaigns.[3] The goal of this post is to bring ballot initiatives to the collective attention of the EA community to help promote future research into the effectiveness of ballot initiative campaigns for EA-aligned policies and movement-building.

What is a ballot initiative?

Ballot initiatives are a way for ordinary citizens to directly suggest and then vote on proposed legislation. A ballot initiative is a vehicle for enacting policy proposals that originate outside elected legislative bodies. Generally speaking, in jurisdictions that allow ballot initiatives, any citizen can submit an initiative, which, if it attracts the requisite popular support and meets certain legal requirements, is then placed on the ballot of an upcoming election. In broad terms, the process begins with the drafting of a petition. If the petition garners the required number of voter signatures during some specified time period, it is then put up for a direct and binding[4] vote. If the measure passes, it automatically becomes law.[5] In this way ballot initiatives bypass elected legislative bodies and are thus a form of direct democracy.

Terminology sometimes varies by jurisdiction and is often confusing. A ballot initiative should be distinguished from a referendum, which is the process by which some piece of government policy (either already enacted or merely proposed) is put to the electorate for a general vote.[6] The key difference is that referenda concern policies originally crafted by the government whereas initiatives concern policies crafted by the citizens themselves.[7] Both initiatives and referenda result in ballot measures, which is the general term for policy proposals that are put to an electorate-wide vote (Matsusaka 2018: 109). Additionally, ballot initiatives come in two forms: statutory initiatives and constitutional initiatives. A successful statutory initiative changes the jurisdiction’s laws while a successful constitutional initiative changes the jurisdiction’s constitution.[8] Constitutional initiatives often require a supermajority to be approved and, because the changes become part of the jurisdiction’s constitution, are harder to be undone.

Where are ballot initiatives possible?

Although many countries employ some form of direct democracy, relatively few allow and regularly utilize ballot initiatives in the sense described above. To our knowledge, there are at most a handful of examples of citizen-proposed initiatives in Africa and Oceania. In Latin America, Uruguay is the only country that both allows and regularly uses ballot initiatives (Kaufmann, Büchi, & Braun 2010: 219). In Asia, Taiwan is the most prominent country to allow and utilize ballot initiatives, and initiatives in Taiwan only became feasible thanks to reforms enacted in December 2017, which significantly lowered the barriers to getting an initiative on the ballot.[9]

By a large margin, the United States and Switzerland lead the world in the use of ballot initiatives. 24 U.S. states and all 26 Swiss cantons allow ballot initiatives (Matsusaka 2018: 110, 112).[10] California has produced many of the most widely-known ballot initiatives, from 1978’s Prop 13, which capped the rate at which property taxes could increase and helped spur nationwide hostility to taxation,[11] to 2008’s Prop 8, which restricted marriage to heterosexual couples and was later overturned in federal court.

Ballot initiatives are also possible at the local level. At least 9,239 cities in the U.S. allow some form of ballot initiative (Graves 2012: 11), representing about 54% of all U.S. municipalities and including major cities like Austin, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington D.C.

What can we accomplish with ballot initiatives?

In this section we briefly describe a number of ways ballot initiatives could be used to further EA goals. To be clear, the subsections below don’t represent comprehensive analyses of the cause areas, and we don’t claim one way or the other that ballot initiatives are a cost-effective intervention in these areas. Instead, we aim to start a collective conversation about the use of ballot initiatives to advance EA interests in the hope that cost-effective initiatives can eventually be identified. Also, we don’t contend that there is a consensus in EA about the value of these potential initiatives. We’ve collected examples from topics that have been discussed in EA circles, but some of those conversations may be confused or premised on false assumptions. Discussion of a potential ballot initiative does not entail that we think the initiative campaign would be cost-effective or even that we think the initiative’s success would be a good thing.

We’ve restricted our analysis to potential initiatives that have at least a loose precedent of success in recent years. This restriction is useful for two reasons. First, it keeps the number of ideas under consideration manageable. In many jurisdictions, there are few limits on the content of ballot initiatives, so asking the question “What can we accomplish with ballot initiatives?” is equivalent to asking “What legislation would be good from an EA standpoint?” The latter question is important, but its scope is far too broad for the remit of this post. Second, and more important, this restriction serves as a rough tractability filter. Initiative topics with a proven track record are more likely feasible than topics without such a track record.[12] Of course, even with this restriction in place, there are many more potential initiatives than we’ve had the time and creativity to imagine. As such, we would love to hear additional suggestions from the community.

Animal welfare

Farmed animal advocates have scored a string of victories over the last two decades using the initiative process. In 2002, Florida voters approved Amendment 10, which banned gestation crates. In 2006, Arizona voters approved Proposition 204, which banned both gestation crates and veal crates. While the direct effects of these propositions were small (by some counts only around a thousand animals were actually affected), the indirect effects were much larger. For example, thanks in large part to the success of Prop 204, in 2007 the American Veal Association (AVA) adopted a resolution calling for all U.S. veal producers to transition to group housing methods by the end of 2017. (According to the AVA, they have achieved that goal.) Perhaps more importantly, Amendment 10 and Prop 204 helped build momentum for the farmed animal welfare movement and established a precedent of success at the ballot box.[13]

The next major victory was in California, when voters approved the landmark Proposition 2 in 2008. Prop 2 was designed to eliminate gestation crates, veal crates,[14] and battery cages, marking the first time voters were directly asked to evaluate the confinement of layer hens. With the passage of Prop 2, California egg producers worried they would be unable to compete with out-of-state producers using the old, intensive system, so they made common cause with animal welfare advocates and lobbied the state legislature to pass a law, AB 1437, mandating that out-of-state eggs sold in California meet the same requirements as those that Prop 2 implemented for in-state eggs.[15] In this way, Prop 2 sparked a national conversation about farmed animal welfare and helped set the stage for future successful corporate cage-free campaigns,[16] precipitating nationwide industry reforms.[17]

Unfortunately, Prop 2 failed in its goal to eliminate battery cages in California. The ballot measure called for hens to be able to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. California regulators interpreted this as allowing for merely larger cages. And so in 2018 California voters were again asked to weigh in on the conditions in which farmed animals are confined, this time in the form of Proposition 12. Prop 12 aimed to eliminate the ambiguity in Prop 2 by establishing specific minimum square-footage for veal calves, breeding pigs, and layer hens and banning the sale of animal products that don’t meet those requirements.[18] (As before, Prop 12 would also apply to animal products produced in other states to be sold in California.) The Open Philanthropy Project supported Prop 12 with a $4 million grant, and the measure passed 63% to 37% on November 6, 2018.

Looking forward, effective animal advocacy organizations could coordinate with the Humane Society of the United States, which spearheaded these efforts, to attempt to put similar initiatives on the ballot in other promising states. There is also interesting and ambitious work being done in Switzerland. In 2019, an alliance of animal rights groups and environmental organizations led by Sentience Politics submitted enough signatures to get an initiative proposing to end Swiss factory farming on the ballot of the next general election (expected no later than 2023).[19] Finally, animal welfare organizations may also want to consider initiatives that increase the burden on factory farms to treat their own waste, thus internalizing an externality and increasing the cost to produce factory-farmed products.[20]

Electoral reform

The Center for Election Science (CES), an EA-aligned organization endorsed by Will MacAskill and partially funded by the Open Philanthropy Project, utilizes local ballot initiatives to campaign for approval voting. (Approval voting plausibly improves institutional decision-making by reducing partisanship and incentivizing compromise.[21]) Last year a local group sponsored by CES, Reform Fargo, used the initiative process to get approval voting on the November 2018 ballot, where it won 64-36. CES has now partnered with another local group, St. Louis Approves, and is working with them to qualify an approval voting initiative for the 2020 election.[22]

Campaign finance reform is another frequent ballot measure target. In recent years, several cities, including Denver, Baltimore, and Seattle, have used the initiative process to create public campaign financing systems to reduce the influence of large donors on campaigns. In 2018, voters in New York City opted to expand a similar system, and in 2019 voters in San Francisco approved a measure increasing contribution disclaimers on political advertising and restricting contributions from individuals with certain levels of financial interest in city matters. Campaign finance reform has been tentatively posited as an EA priority, and if that’s right, then similar initiatives could be attempted in other cities.[23]

Other reforms concern who can vote. Golden, Colorado recently voted on (and rejected) an initiative to give 16-and 17-year-olds the right to vote in municipal elections. Some EAs believe that empowering younger generations may be an effective way to improve the longterm future. If that’s right, then similar initiatives could be attempted in other cities.

Criminal justice

Expanding the right to vote is not just a matter of electoral reform; it can also be an important part of criminal justice reform. In 2018, Floridians approved Florida Amendment 4, an initiative to automatically restore voting rights to felons (excluding those convicted of murder or sexual violence) upon completion of their sentences.[24] The Open Philanthropy Project supported the initiative with a $750,000 grant on the grounds that “increasing the political and advocacy power of formerly incarcerated people is an important element of strategies to safely reduce incarceration.”[25]

Florida Amendment 4 is not the first initiative that Open Philanthropy has supported with the intention of advancing criminal justice reform. In April 2018 it granted $500,000 to support the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative, a local initiative that aims to reduce the size of the prison population in Los Angeles County. Open Philanthropy argues that if passed, the initiative would “reduce recidivism, prevent crime, and permanently reduce the population of people cycling into and out of jail that are experiencing mental health, drug dependency, or chronic homelessness issues.” If that’s true, other counties that both allow ballot initiatives and host large prison populations could be targeted with similar measures.

Catastrophic risk preparation

EAs interested in reducing catastrophic risk could use ballot initiatives to potentially increase civilization’s resilience to global catastrophe. Members of the catastrophic risk community could model policies on other disaster preparation initiatives, like Oregon’s 2002 seismic rehabilitation measure, which passed with 77% support, or California’s 2010 seismic retrofitting initiative, which passed with 85% support. It might be possible, for example, to use ballot initiatives to force governments to explicitly plan for food production shocks, solar storms, pandemics, volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, and other calamities.

One obvious type of global catastrophe is nuclear war. In the 1980s a raft of state-level nuclear weapons initiatives were approved. Most of these measures were purely symbolic, such as 1982 initiatives in Alaska, California, Oregon, and Wisconsin, urging the federal government to negotiate an international agreement to reduce the number of nuclear warheads and freeze testing of new nuclear arms. But at least one measure, North Dakota’s Limits on Nuclear Weapons Initiative, sought to limit the development and production of nuclear weapons in the state. It passed with 58% support, a nontrivial achievement considering that North Dakota at one time hosted hundreds of underground missile silos and launch control facilities. None of these measures appear to have been particularly impactful, and the political climate of the 1980s is very different than today’s, but given previous success at the ballot box and EA interest in preventing nuclear war, it may be worth investigating what can be done in this area with ballot initiatives.

Another obvious, if slow-moving, global catastrophe is climate change. Climate change initiatives are increasingly popular. About a quarter of all statewide ballot measures in 2018 were related to carbon emissions, renewable energy, or offshore drilling, with mixed success. Nevada voters approved the Renewable Energy Standards Initiative, which requires electric utilities to acquire at least 50% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030. (Arizona voters rejected a similar proposal.) Washington voters considered and rejected a statewide carbon tax, voting the measure down 57% to 43%. Local environmental measures were also on the ballot in 2018. For example, voters in Portland, Oregon approved an initiative imposing a licensing fee on large retailers to pay for clean energy projects. In Switzerland, Sentience Politics has launched a number of sustainable nutrition initiatives at the city and canton level that would reduce the carbon footprint of Swiss food consumption.[26] EAs interested in climate change could analyze the likely impact of these different types of climate initiatives as well as their odds of success across jurisdictions to help develop a cost-effectiveness model of using initiatives to combat climate change.

Intriguingly, one general-purpose catastrophic risk preparation ballot measure was recently approved in Washington state. WA SJR 8200[27] supports government continuity in case of disaster[28] by allowing the legislature to pass temporary laws filling certain vacant public offices in the event of a catastrophic incident, even if those laws violate the state constitution.[29] The measure was approved 65% to 35% in November 2019. If members of the catastrophic risk community deem such provisions helpful, they could pursue similar changes in other regions. Given the measure’s widespread support, it’s plausible that it could be replicated in other states.

Global development

In jurisdictions that maintain global development budgets, initiatives can be used to increase those budgets and influence the organizations to which that aid is disbursed. For example, in 2016, the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF) launched an initiative in Zurich, Switzerland that would have required the city to devote 1% of the city’s overall budget to highly effective global health charities. This change would have increased Zurich’s aid budget from roughly $2.5 million per year to roughly $87 million per year. EAF managed to qualify the initiative for the ballot, but initial responses to the proposal were negative. Instead of retracting the proposal or seeing it defeated at the next election, EAF worked with the city council to develop a counterproposal that could be added to the ballot in place of the original proposal. (This sort of collaboration between initiative sponsors and city council members is standard practice in Switzerland.) The counterproposal increased the foreign aid budget by about $5 million, a far cry from the initial proposal but still not an insignificant sum. The counterproposal also required that aid grants be based on the available scientific evidence of cost-effectiveness. In November 2019, the citizens of Zurich had the opportunity to vote on the counterproposal, and the measure passed with 70% support. Given the wide margin of support, it’s plausible that the effort could be replicated in other jurisdictions.


Some EAs regard psychedelic use as a promising intervention, both in the shortterm (to treat depression, anxiety, and addiction) and in the longterm (as a way to increase the number of well-intentioned and capable individuals). If that’s right, then proponents of psychedelic use should consider attempting to replicate the success of marijuana decriminalization and legalization initiatives. Of the eleven states in which recreational marijuana use is legal, nine legalized marijuana through ballot initiatives: Alaska (2014), California (2016), Colorado (2012), Maine (2016), Massachusetts (2016), Michigan (2018), Nevada (2016), Oregon (2014), and Washington (2012).[30] Psychedelic initiatives have already scored at least one victory and at least one defeat. In 2018, a proposed initiative decriminalizing psilocybin in California failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. In May 2019, Denver voters approved a ballot initiative decriminalizing the possession and use of psilocybin mushrooms. Voters may have another chance to express their views on psychedelics soon. A proposed initiative that would legalize the administration of psilocybin at licensed facilities in Oregon is currently collecting signatures and may be on the ballot in 2020. Similar initiatives could be launched in other cities and states.

Lead poisoning

There is growing evidence that childhood lead exposure is correlated with a host of mental, physical, and social ills. Lead exposure has recently been explored as an EA high-priority cause area, and GiveWell has investigated supporting campaigns against lead paint in Southeast Asia. Although by the 1980s most Western nations had enacted regulations on lead paint, lead poisoning is still a serious problem in the U.S., with the crisis in Flint, Michigan the most high-profile—but by no means only—recent case. Ballot initiatives are one way to tackle this problem. For example, a group in Cleveland is working on a ballot initiative that would reduce lead exposure in daycare centers and older rental properties in the city. Similar initiatives could be launched in cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Research and development

Ballot initiatives can be used to fund research and development in specific areas. For example, in 2004 California voters approved Proposition 71, an initiated constitutional amendment that allocated $3 billion in general obligation bonds to create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which promotes stem cell research through grants and loans. Admittedly, other R&D initiatives have had worse luck. A proposal to raise taxes on tobacco products in California to fund cancer research was narrowly defeated in 2012, and a proposal to spend $200 million on biomedical research in Montana was handily defeated in 2016. Nonetheless, even these failed initiatives demonstrate the possibility of putting research and development questions directly to voters. Whether it’s exploring alternate foods to prepare for global agricultural catastrophes, studying the effects of psychedelics on addiction, PTSD, and Alzheimer’s, or developing new plant-based and cultivated meats, just about any cause area could potentially benefit from additional research funds.

Ballot initiative advantages

In the previous section we discussed some possible initiatives that have the potential to advance EA cause areas. It’s worth remembering, however, that any policy proposal that can be put to voters in the form of a ballot initiative can also be considered directly by elected legislators. So the previous section doesn’t provide much of an argument for ballot initiatives per se (other than showing that some policy proposals that would advance EA causes have a loose history of initiative success). Nonetheless, we think there are at least three reasons why ballot initiatives in particular are potentially a good intervention for EA cause areas.

Initiatives are probably easier than traditional lobbying

The first reason is that in many cases organizing a ballot initiative may be easier than lobbying legislators to sponsor a specific proposal. Lawmakers do not have an unlimited capacity to enact legislation. There are only so many bills that they can reasonably expect to research, write, promote, and shepherd to law in a given election cycle. As a consequence, lawmakers tend to focus on the issues that are most salient to their constituents. Lobbyists can shift the focus of lawmakers, but doing so is not necessarily easy. Forging useful connections with elected representatives takes time, money, and expertise. Newer organizations are less likely to have the experience and resources necessary to influence legislators. Lutz and Lutz 2011 apply this point to animal rights legislation. They write, “Familiarity and previous access to legislators are important [...] It is noteworthy that some of the successes of animal rights groups have had to rely on public ballots and initiatives. The reliance on the public approach might reflect the fact that the long-established agricultural interest groups are more adept at dealing with state legislators than the somewhat newer animal rights groups” (272). Because most EA-aligned organizations are either small, new, or both, they are unlikely to possess the skills and connections needed to successfully persuade legislators to support EA-aligned policies. Ballot initiatives may be a simpler method for promoting such policies in the short term.

Another potential advantage of initiatives over lobbying is that initiative sponsors have more control over the eventual law than lobbyists. When lobbyists attempt to influence a legislature in the direction of a certain policy, they have to rely on what’s introduced by the most friendly legislator and then what survives the legislative process. The final product may be far from ideal. With ballot initiatives, the initiative sponsors write the law directly then subject the proposed law to a binary up-or-down vote. There is no amendment process or horse-trading involved.[31] Moreover, unlike legislative advocacy, which can drag on indefinitely, ballot initiative campaigns come with a specified end-date by which the issue is decided.

A final advantage of initiative campaigns over lobbying is the signalling value of having the public pass something rather than the legislature. Public passage of a policy may make the issue seem more real in terms of voters’ lived experiences as opposed to strong advocacy at the legislative level.[32] In addition, public passage of a policy avoids the perceived democratic shortcomings often associated with direct lobbying, such as the revolving door between the private sector and government regulatory agencies charged with regulating the private sector.[33] It’s not clear that the initiative process is in fact more representative of the people’s will than direct lobbying—well-financed special interest groups are often accused of hijacking the initiative process—but from a movement-building perspective, it does seem that, all other things equal, getting the public to explicitly endorse a policy at the ballot is preferable to enacting legislation through lobbying.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee that a given ballot measure campaign will always be more cost-effective than directly lobbying legislators to enact some policy. Context is everything. Laws surrounding ballot measures vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and other factors, such as the presence and price of petition drive management companies,[34] vary as well. Some causes may be more popular with legislators than with the general public, increasing the effectiveness of direct lobbying. And although smaller and newer organizations are less likely to be able to efficiently lobby legislators in general, there may be unique circumstances in which lobbying some group of legislators on some particular issue is more tractable than launching an initiative campaign.

Even a failed initiative can raise awareness and shift public acceptance

A ballot initiative need not be enacted into law in order to have a positive impact. Damore, Bowler, & Nicholson 2012 write, “The literature on the initiative suggests that interest groups may benefit even if a proposal does not pass. [...] organized interests may have goals (i.e., mobilization, networking, membership growth, etc.) besides policy change for qualifying initiatives. Interest groups may, in a sense, ‘win’ even if a proposal loses at the ballot” (370).[35] This point is often applied to animal welfare initiatives. For example, Smithson et al. 2014 write, “When Floridians first voted to ban gestation crates in 2002, citizens in other states read about this peculiar initiative and for the first time learned how sows were housed” (108). Whether or not Florida’s gestation crate ban failed (which it did not), it could have benefited farmed animals. Recent evidence suggests that “media attention to animal welfare has a small, but statistically significant impact on meat demand” (Tonsor & Olynk 2011: 59) and that meat identified as originating in a factory farm tastes saltier, greasier, and less fresh compared to identical meat labelled ‘humanely-raised’ (Anderson & Barrett 2016). Educating voters about the conditions in which farmed animals are raised is a necessary precursor to changing attitudes toward farmed animal suffering. By raising awareness about an important but often unnoticed issue, this initiative paved the way (in part) for future initiatives in other states like Massachusetts and California.

If conducted carefully, an EA-led ballot initiative campaign could raise awareness about neglected (but high-impact) cause areas and shift attitudes closer toward EA values. This was part of the rationale for the (mostly) successful Zurich effective foreign aid initiative, discussed above. When justifying using ballot initiatives as intervention, the organizers wrote (emphasis added), “The initiative will cause extensive media coverage and spark a public debate about effective altruism and evidence-based foreign aid, as is usual for novel ideas presented in popular initiatives. Moreover, information on the referendum – including arguments for effective altruism itself – will be mailed to all 400,000 citizens of the city of Zurich.” They added, “These benefits do not depend heavily on the actual outcome of the referendum; rather, they are mostly guaranteed to occur as a by-product of the initiative itself. We believe that the movement-building benefits alone would make the initiative a worthwhile project.”[36]

Of course, not all publicity is good publicity. Activity in favor of some policy can arouse opposition to the policy as well as support. Sometimes advocacy for one side tends to bolster, rather than undermine, the opposing camp. For example, the prosocial activities of companies whose motives are perceived to be insincere or ambiguous actually hurt the company’s reputation (Yoon, Gürhan‐Canli, & Schwarz 2006), and negative stereotypes of social activists sometimes make people more resistant to the adoption of social changes that those activists promote (Bashir et al. 2013).[37] If planned or executed poorly, a failed EA-led initiative campaign could not only expend resources without improving on the status quo—it could actively reduce support for the proposed change or even damage the movement’s overall image. At a minimum, we should probably assume that an initiative campaign to change some policy will probably induce at least a shortterm increase in the spending in support of the status quo. Whether the increased attention from both sides is a net-gain (and how attention shifts in the longterm) is worthy of deeper investigation.

A credible ballot initiative threat can motivate legislators

The overall impact of the ballot initiative process is hard to precisely measure because much of that impact occurs indirectly. Matsusaka 2018 writes, “One insight from the theoretical literature is that direct democracy’s effect on policy comes to a large degree by changing the behavior of representatives” (113), noting that “this implies that the effect of the initiative cannot be inferred by examining only those propositions that actually appear on the ballot” (118). He concludes, “The effect of the initiative and referendum is indirect, potentially to a large degree. Policy may change not because voters approve a proposition, but because the threat of a proposition causes the government to choose a different policy” (118).

Legislators in ballot initiative jurisdictions take note of which initiatives have been successful in other jurisdictions. As above, this point is often applied to animal welfare legislation. Smithson et al. 2014 report, “The egg industry's weakness is Ohio. It is the second largest egg-producing state, 63% of its voters are projected to vote in favor of an initiative resembling Prop two, and Ohio's laws make initiatives possible and relatively inexpensive. For these reasons, the egg and pork industries were worried HSUS would be able to ban gestation crates and battery cages through an initiative resembling Prop two and capitulated to prevent a public defeat and to negotiate favorable terms. The Ohio egg lobby, we suspect however cannot prove, sought to force other states to also phase out the battery cage. Otherwise, Ohio would be hobbled by higher production costs” (122). Not only did a credible ballot initiative threat cause (at least in part) the Ohio egg and pork industries to adopt higher welfare standards without much of a fight, the ballot initiative threat also seems to have turned the Ohio egg lobby from adversary to ally in the nationwide fight to improve layer conditions.

The EA community has already witnessed how a credible ballot initiative can push legislators in the right direction. As discussed above, in 2016 the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF) launched a local initiative that would have raised the city of Zurich’s foreign aid budget from approximately $2.5 million per year to approximately $87 million per year, while also requiring that that aid budget be designated for highly effective charities. In 2018, the financial commission of the city council offered to put a compromise measure on the ballot (standard practice in Switzerland) raising the foreign aid budget to approximately $8 million per year and requiring allocation of the funds to be “based on the available scientific research on effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.” Based on their assessment of the probability of victory of the respective proposals, EAF agreed to retract the original initiative (a condition for placing the counterproposal on the ballot) and support the compromise. In November 2019, Zurich voters approved the revised initiative 70% to 30%, thus significantly increasing Zurich’s foreign aid budget and enacting what appears to be the first piece of Swiss legislation that imposes effectiveness requirements on development aid.

Although a credible ballot initiative threat can make compromise more likely, such a threat might also prompt the targeted industry or opposed legislators to take preemptive action to entrench their positions. A credible ballot initiative threat might motivate an interest group to start running favorable ads in a bid to change public opinion long before an initiative reaches the ballot. A credible ballot initiative threat might also motivate hostile legislators to amend the jurisdiction’s constitution to reduce the power of future initiatives to make effective change. This is arguably what happened recently in Missouri, where in 2014 legislators voted to put a so-called ‘right-to-farm’ constitutional amendment on the ballot, where it passed by the thinnest of margins. The amendment explicitly guarantees farmers and ranchers the right to utilize modern livestock production techniques. Any effort to get animal welfare initiatives like those passed in California and Massachusetts on the ballot in Missouri (which has a large farmed animal industry) will now have to contend with repealing this amendment first, making animal welfare campaigns in Missouri all the more expensive and uncertain.

Ballot initiative limitations

Despite the advantages discussed above, running a ballot initiative campaign is not easy, and there are many ways a ballot initiative campaign can fail outright or fail to be cost-effective. Anyone contemplating launching such a campaign should carefully consider the following ballot initiative limitations.

The cost of running a ballot initiative campaign is difficult to predict

Unlike some other interventions, it is difficult to know in advance how much running a successful ballot initiative campaign might cost. There’s not much that can be said in general about the cost of running a ballot initiative campaign. There are some generalizations, but they are of little practical help. Larger jurisdictions tend to be more expensive than smaller jurisdictions (though likely cheaper per capita on average because of fixed costs). Jurisdictions with more stringent requirements tend to demand more resources to qualify for the ballot than jurisdictions with less stringent requirements. Initiatives that target powerful vested interests tend to generate more opposition than initiatives that do not target powerful vested interests. Initiatives that promote unpopular positions tend to require more financial support in order to pass than initiatives that promote popular positions.[38]

Thanks to campaign finance transparency laws, it’s possible to look at some recent EA-relevant initiatives in order to get a rough sense of what running an initiative campaign might cost. Unfortunately, there’s a tremendous range. Some campaigns are very expensive.[39] Groups supporting Florida’s successful 2018 Amendment 4 (restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences) raised over $25 million (including $750,000 from Open Philanthropy) and spent just over $23 million. (There was no formal opposition.) Groups supporting California’s successful 2018 Proposition 12 (establishing minimum square-footage for veal calves, breeding pigs, and layer hens) raised over $13 million (including $4 million from Open Philanthropy) and spent roughly the same. (Opponents spent a lowly $441,000.) Groups supporting Washington’s unsuccessful 2018 Initiative 1631 (which would have established a carbon tax in the state) raised over $16 million (including a million dollars from Bill Gates). (Opponents spent a whopping $31.5 million.) In contrast to these big, costly, statewide campaigns, the group supporting Denver’s successful 2019 Initiated Ordinance 301 (decriminalizing psilocybin in the city) spent a mere $47,000. According to data available from Ballotpedia, in 2018 the median amount raised in support of a U.S. statewide ballot initiative that qualified for the ballot was approximately $3.8 million (mean: $7.6 million). (See Figure 1.) Local initiatives are undoubtedly cheaper on average than statewide initiatives, though whether they are more cost-effective is uncertain.

Figure 1: U.S. Statewide Campaign Contributions Per Ballot Initiative, 2018[40]

One factor that is difficult to predict but that has the potential to significantly affect the cost of a ballot initiative campaign is the number and nature of legal challenges that are brought against the initiative.

Legal challenges to a ballot initiative can occur at many stages of the initiative process. The validity of collected signatures can be challenged, the subject of the initiative can be challenged, the official title and summary can be challenged, conformity to the relevant campaign finance laws can be challenged, and the constitutionality of the initiative can be challenged. After an initiative has been approved, the implementation of the initiative can be challenged as well. Any of these challenges can imperil the success of an initiative, and legal research in anticipation of these challenges can add to initial costs.

After an initiative sponsor has collected enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, those signatures must be validated. (See Appendix 1 for more details.) The outcome of the validation process is sometimes challenged in court. These challenges come in two forms: post-certification signature challenges and signature recovery challenges. The former is brought by opponents of an initiative that has qualified for the ballot seeking to have enough additional signatures invalidated to get the initiative thrown off the ballot. The latter is brought by supporters of an initiative that has not qualified for the ballot seeking to have enough previously invalidated signatures recertified to qualify for the ballot. An initiative campaign must be prepared to defend against a post-certification challenge if necessary and also be prepared to launch a recovery challenge (if the odds of success are reasonable).

Many jurisdictions have so-called single-subject rules, prohibiting initiatives from covering multiple topics. Adherence to these rules can be challenged in court. The purpose of single-subject rules is to make initiatives easier to understand and to prevent popular provisions from being bundled with unpopular provisions. However, Matsusaka & Hasen 2010 note that such rules are “controversial in part because the definition of a ‘single subject’ is unclear [...] As a result, courts have a great deal of discretion in single subject cases” (399). They report that such rules were used “to strike down or remove initiatives from voter consideration in at least 70 cases during the period 1997–2006” (399). Moreover, they present evidence “that judges are more likely to vote to uphold an initiative against a single subject challenge if their partisan affiliations suggest they would be sympathetic to the policy proposed by the initiative” (399). Thus, an initiative campaign ought to be prepared to fight a single-subject challenge, and they should probably be attuned to the political leanings of the judges in the jurisdiction in which such a challenge would be fought.

An initiative’s title and summary can be extremely important, especially for low-salience issues. An initiative’s official title and summary as they appear on the actual ballot are always the last piece of information voters are exposed to before they cast their vote. But for issues that don’t generate much media attention, an initiative’s official title and summary as they appear on the actual ballot often constitute a voter’s first exposure to the issue. Thus, for low-salience issues, an unfavorable title or summary has the potential to significantly reduce the odds of approval. In most jurisdictions the organizers of a ballot initiative campaign do not have control over how the initiative is titled and summarized on the ballot. (See Appendix 1 for more details.) An initiative’s title and summary can be challenged in court. Because of the importance of an initiative’s title and summary, most organizations that run ballot initiative campaigns ought to budget for this eventuality. It’s difficult to calculate the risk of such lawsuits across all jurisdictions, but some useful generalizations can be gleaned by examining recent U.S. statewide ballot initiatives. According to data available on Ballotpedia, between 2008 and 2018 there were 403 U.S. statewide initiatives certified for the ballot. In this time period there were 97 lawsuits regarding ballot language. Of these 97 lawsuits, 27 ended with language the initiative authors didn’t want and a further 5 lawsuits resulted in the initiative being tossed from the ballot altogether. In the remainder of cases, the original language stayed intact or the proponents of the initiative agreed to compromise language.[41]

All U.S. states that allow ballot initiatives impose campaign finance regulations on ballot initiative campaigns (Primo 2013). In many states, such as Ohio, the name, address, employer, and occupation of major donors must be disclosed.[42] Expenditures above a certain threshold must also be tracked and documented. Many local jurisdictions have similar regulations. Opponents of an initiative campaign can challenge its conformity to the relevant campaign finance laws. Because campaign finance law can be complex and complying with the law somewhat onerous, ballot initiative supporters must be prepared for the possibility of a lawsuit that alleges campaign finance violations.

The constitutionality of a ballot initiative might also be challenged. An initiative might be unconstitutional either because it is preempted by a higher legal authority (e.g., a local initiative preempted by state or federal law) or because it substantively violates a constitutional provision. The constitutionality of an initiative can be challenged either before or after the election in which the initiative appears on the ballot.[43] Even if a constitutionality challenge is ultimately unsuccessful, the time and expense of defending an initiative from such a challenge can be considerable. For example, in 2008 California voters approved Proposition 2, prohibiting the production of animals confined in a way such that they are unable to stand up, turn around, or fully extend their limbs. Opponents of the initiative filed several challenges against the new law. One suit, Cramer v. Harris, alleged that the measure was too vague and thus could not be reasonably implemented.[44] The suit was dismissed in February 2015, more than six years after the election in which the initiative was approved. Another suit, Missouri et al. v. California, alleged that a follow-up law to Prop 2, AB 1437, that created an egg sales standard mirroring Prop 2’s guidelines, violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution because it banned the sale of eggs from hens in battery cages, even if those chickens were located outside California. The suit was dismissed in the District Court for Eastern California in October 2014, appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which upheld the ruling in November 2016, then appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in January 2019, finally ending the legal fight more than a decade after votes were cast and counted.

Finally, the implementation of an initiative can be contested. Staszewski 2013 reports that “political scientists have pointed out that popular initiatives are especially likely to contain ambiguities” (1182), and these ambiguities sometimes lead to legal challenges.[45] For example, in November 2018 Florida voters approved Amendment 4, an initiated constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to felons (excluding those convicted of murder or sexual violence) upon completion of their sentences. This past June the governor signed legislation specifying that the completion of a criminal sentence includes full payment of restitution as well as any fines, fees, or other costs incurred as a result of conviction. The proponents of Amendment 4 took issue with this interpretation of the initiative and filed a lawsuit, currently pending in district court, against the legislation. It now appears that the fate of Amendment 4 may depend on the judicial interpretation of the meaning of a comma.

Initiatives are sometimes amended or repealed

In most jurisdictions, the results of a ballot initiative vote are binding and the language of the initiative is self-executing. That is to say, when a ballot initiative is approved, it automatically becomes law (on the date indicated in the initiative). Nonetheless, there are a number of ways in which an uncooperative legislature can undermine the intent of an initiative, ranging from unfaithful implementation to amendment to outright repeal. Of the 97 statewide initiatives approved between 2010 and 2018, 11 initiatives were repealed or amended in a way that went against the wishes of the initiative’s supporters.[46] For example, in November 2010, Missouri voters approved an initiative to ban puppy mills. By April 2011, the governor signed legislation repealing, among other things, the maximum limit of 50 breeding dogs per business, a core provision of the initiative. As another example, in November 2016, voters in Maine approved an initiative increasing the state minimum wage. By June of the following year, the governor signed legislation amending the increase so that it no longer applied to restaurant workers.

The laws governing the legislative repeal or amendment of ballot initiatives vary from state to state. In 11 states (Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah), there are no restrictions on how soon or with what majority legislators can repeal or amend successful statutory initiatives.[47] In two states (Alaska, Wyoming), the legislature can amend a successful initiative at any time, but must wait two years before repealing an initiative. In three states (Michigan, Nebraska, Arkansas), the legislature can amend or repeal a successful initiative at any time with a two-thirds supermajority vote. In North Dakota, the legislature can amend an initiative at any time with a two-thirds supermajority vote, and after seven years can amend an initiative via a simple majority vote. In Nevada, the legislature must wait three years before it can amend or repeal (via a simple majority vote) a successful initiative. In two states (Arizona, California), changing or amending a successful ballot initiative requires voter approval.[48]

A failed initiative might damage the movement and a successful initiative might engender overwhelming opposition

Even in favorable conditions, running a ballot initiative campaign risks failure, and failure can look bad. Putting up an initiative that voters reject can expose a lack of popular support for the proposed policy, harming movement morale, reducing momentum, and emboldening opposition. These second-order effects ought to be considered when judging the expected value of an initiative campaign. When a movement is on a winning streak, as, for example, the farmed animal welfare movement appears to be on, a single loss at the ballot box may damage the movement much more than an additional victory aids the movement.

Victory brings its own risks. Small, early successes in a cause area cannot always be extrapolated to later, major successes. Entrenched interests may be willing to concede minor victories to the opposition without much of a fight, but as the opposition threat grows, at some point those entrenched interests might decide to respond with overwhelming force. Take the animal agriculture industry, for example. Recent initiative victories appear promising, but it’s worth noting that these initiatives have thus far not attracted a lot of attention, which may be limiting the amount of spending necessary to promote them. California’s Proposition 12 was a landmark achievement in the animal advocacy community, but it wasn’t even featured on FiveThirtyEight’s review of 27 ballot initiatives worth watching in 2018. If animal welfare ballot initiatives attracted a higher profile, that could dramatically increase the amount of spending needed to support them.[49] A more far-reaching proposal, such as an outright ban on intensive animal agriculture, would almost certainly engender much more opposition. Such massive opposition could substantially shift public opinion from where the initial polling puts it, reducing the prospect of future victory.

Taken together, these two points might suggest initiative campaigns ought to proceed cautiously and conservatively. Past success doesn’t guarantee future success. And there is at least some reason to think that modest campaigns will have a higher expected value than ambitious campaigns, once the second-order effects are factored in. As with all interventions, as the low-hanging fruit in an area is exhausted, the expected value of initiative campaigns will decline.

Areas for future research

Much work remains to be done in order to determine whether and in what contexts ballot initiatives are a useful intervention to promote EA causes. Although the ultimate utility of ballot initiative campaigns is unknown, the current expected value of additional ballot initiative research looks to be passably high. Given the potentially significant impact of ballot initiative campaigns, reducing the uncertainty about their cost-effectiveness appears to be a reasonably good use of resources. Below we outline just a few examples. Again, we welcome additional research questions from the community.

Getting on the ballot is a necessary step to achieving ballot initiative success. A relatively comprehensive guide comparing the feasibility of getting initiatives on the ballot across important jurisdictions, including jurisdictions outside the U.S., could be a valuable tool for evaluating where to launch an initiative campaign.

To assess the cost-effectiveness of a potential ballot initiative campaign, it is critical to know what the odds of success are. There is already a small academic literature on modeling the odds of ballot initiative success (see e.g. Smithson et al. 2014). Such predictive modeling could be refined and expanded to cover more jurisdictions and more cause areas.

Models are only as accurate as their inputs. While some relevant information is publicly available, such as demographic data, other important pieces are unknown. Timely polling numbers across a variety of cause areas and jurisdictions could help us identify promising regions and issues to target.

As noted above, even a failed ballot initiative can have positive effects by raising awareness and shifting public perceptions. Studies that measure the degree to which defeated ballot measures change public attitudes could help quantify this benefit.

Understanding the costs and benefits of a potential initiative campaign don’t dictate whether the campaign would be more counterfactually effective than alternatives. We must also analyze the effectiveness of other routes to getting the target policy adopted. Insofar as this is possible, studies that directly compare the cost-effectiveness of ballot initiative campaigns versus traditional lobbying would be extremely useful.


This report begins the project of identifying and assessing where and when ballot initiatives are an effective intervention. In recent years, ballot initiatives have been used to improve the conditions in which farmed animals are raised, improve institutional decision-making by changing the way elections are conducted, and increase the amount and efficiency of municipal foreign aid. In the future, ballot initiatives might be used to safely reduce the size of prison populations, decriminalize psilocybin, curtail lead poisoning, fund basic research and development, prepare for catastrophic risk, or even ban factory farming in some jurisdictions.

Despite the promise of such examples, it is as yet unclear if ballot initiatives are an effective strategy to pursue those goals. However, ballot initiative campaigns appear promising enough that such campaigns merit a closer look across a number of cause areas. Ballot initiatives offer the possibility of crafting specific policy proposals and subjecting them to a binding up-or-down general vote, all with minimal interaction with elected representatives. There are few restrictions on the content of a ballot initiative, and ballot initiatives are possible in a wide range of jurisdictions. Scoring EA-aligned policy victories across several small, local jurisdictions has the potential to build momentum behind those policies and raise awareness about important EA cause areas. Rethink Priorities welcomes collaboration with other organizations, researchers, activists, and funders interested in pursuing additional investigation into ballot initiative interventions.

If you are interested in funding further ballot initiative work, we know some projects both internally and externally with significant room for more funding. Please contact Peter at peter@peterhurford.com to discuss further if you're interested.

Appendix 1: U.S. state ballot initiative details

To win an initiative and get your desired policy passed into law, you have to win the election where you meet the specific majority-vote threshold for your chosen state (usually, but not always, more than 50%). But to get there, you first have to get on the ballot in the state, which requires collecting signatures.

Generally, the process for getting an initiative on the ballot includes these steps:

  1. Very minimal preliminary signature collection, if required (OH, OR, AK, ND, ID, ME, WY, WA)
  2. Preliminary filing of a proposed petition with a designated state official
  3. Review of the petition for conformance with statutory requirements and, in several states, a review of the language of the proposal
  4. Preparation of a ballot title and summary for the petition
  5. Circulation of the petition to obtain the required number of signatures of registered voters, usually a percentage of the votes cast for a statewide office in the preceding general election
  6. Submission of the petitions to the state elections official, who must verify the number of signatures
  7. Preparation of a ballot title and summary for the ballot
  8. Election day! (Pass designated threshold - 50% in most states, 55% in CO, 60% in FL).

The exact process and number of decision points or crucial considerations vary by state with no two states having the exact same process.

Preliminary filing

In 14 states the petition must be filed with the Secretary of State. In others, it is submitted to the Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, and/or some other state official office. There is little to suggest one of these offices would be more or less receptive to initiatives without specific knowledge of the content of the initiative and the partisan lean of the official; however, some states (such as MA, CO, and OK) require the petition to be filed with multiple offices, which could be more burdensome.

Review of petition

After the preliminary filing, some states offer or require review of the draft initiative. This includes technical review (ensuring that the initiative meets legal requirements for format and style) and/or content review (ensuring the quality and consistency of the proposal). While some states mandate that this review take place, acceptance of any recommendations made is optional. This review is typically oriented to help ensure citizens drafting a bill with no legal background or expertise can have assistance making it a professional and legal bill consistent with all of the state’s requirements.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, of the 10 states that offer some sort of drafting review, there is a wide range of services offered. California, Massachusetts, Montana, and Oregon go as far as allowing a draft or even just an idea to receive helpful review and assistance in creating a draft.

Preparation of ballot title and summary

A ballot initiative also needs to be presented with a title and a summary (except Nevada, which does not have titles). According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “[t]he ballot title and summary are arguably the most important part of an initiative in terms of voter education. Most voters never read more than the title and summary of the text of initiative proposals.” However, this isn’t always in your direct control and it varies state-to-state with many exceptions.

In six states (AR, AZ, OH, IL, OK, FL) the initiative proponents are the party responsible for drafting the title of the ballot, though it still needs to be approved by either the Attorney General, Lt. Attorney General, the Secretary of State, and/or the Board of Elections, depending on the state.

In 17 states (CA, ID, MS, MT, NE, OR, SD, WA, AK, ME, MO, WY, MA, ND, CO, UT, MI) the party responsible for drafting the title of the ballot is some combination of the Attorney General, the Lt. Governor, the Secretary of State, a Ballot Title Board, the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, the Director of Elections and/or Board of State Canvassers.

An undesirable summary or title can be challenged in court, but the choice of court varies tremendously from state to state. Also keep in mind that the court systems themselves vary state by state and the function and role of a “Superior Court” may not be the same even if it nominally has the same name.

Obtaining signatures

To be certified for the ballot, an initiative petition must be signed by a certain number of registered voters within a certain period of time.[50] Obtaining the requisite number of signatures can be both difficult and expensive, and many initiative petitions fail to make it to the ballot because they fail at this stage.[51] According to data available from Ballotpedia, in 2018 initiative campaigns spent about $75 million collecting signatures across 68 citizen-initiated campaigns. (Notably, this number does not include money spent collecting signatures for initiatives that did not qualify for the ballot.) Thus, in 2018 the average cost to collect enough signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot was about $1.1 million. However, this average hides a rather large range, as the cost-per-required-signature (CPRS) varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. According to the same data from Ballotpedia, in 2018, across the 68 initiatives certified for the ballot, the CPRS per initiative ranged from $0.07 per signature to $25.86 per signature (average: $6.52).

The requirements and restrictions imposed by state law form a major factor in the expense of an initiative petition signature effort. Higher signature requirements are a straightforward example of a reason an initiative petition campaign might be more expensive in one state than in another. Percentage requirements for signatures on statutory initiatives range from a low of 2 percent of the resident population in North Dakota (13,452 for 2020 ballot access), to a high of 15 percent of the total number of votes cast in the preceding election in Wyoming (30,791 signatures for 2020 ballot access). The highest total signature requirement is in California, where 623,212 signatures are required to place a statutory initiative on the 2020 ballot (equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election).[52] An up-to-date table on deadlines and requirements for signature gathering is available on Ballotpedia.

There are several other factors that affect the cost and difficulty of obtaining signatures. Many initiative campaigns employ petition drive management companies to handle this stage of the process. Petition drive management companies are for-profit outfits that specialize in the collection of signatures to qualify initiatives for the ballot. However, the number, quality, and ultimate cost-effectiveness of petition drive management companies varies by jurisdiction. Moreover, some jurisdictions place restrictions on paid circulators, such as prohibiting payment based on the number of signatures collected.

Some states have distribution requirements, requiring that a certain percentage of initiative petition signatures come from different counties or congressional districts. Distribution requirements tend to drive up cost because it is easier and less expensive to collect a lot of signatures in one very populous area than a small number of signatures from lots of smaller, less-populated areas. Even in states without distribution requirements, geography can be important. The more uniform the population density of the state, the more ground that needs to be covered in order to obtain enough signatures.

A final consideration is the amount of time in which a campaign must gather its signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. The initiative petition circulation period is the time from which an initiative petition is approved to the time signatures must be submitted for verification. Signatures collected outside this window are not valid. In general, the more time that initiative proponents have to collect signatures, the less expensive the process will be. An initiative petition circulation period can be as short as 90 days (Oklahoma).

There are other wrinkles as well. Massachusetts, Ohio and Utah have what’s called an indirect initiative process. In these states, sponsors gather a smaller number of signatures to reach the first stage of qualification. Once enough valid signatures are gathered to meet this first stage's threshold, the initiative goes before the state legislature. If the legislature enacts the proposal, no further petition takes place and the proposal becomes law. If the legislature fails to enact the proposal as written, sponsors then go through a second stage of signature-gathering. The system in Missouri means the total number of signatures required for ballot access will vary depending upon which congressional districts sponsors put together to reach the total of six, and in Nebraska’s system petitioners must monitor a constantly changing number while they are gathering signatures and hope that the petitions they turn in meet the number on the deadline.

Submission and certification

The final stage of getting an initiative on the ballot is signature submission and certification. As with other stages, the exact procedure varies from state to state. In most states, the signatures are submitted to the Secretary of State. In some states, signatures are submitted to city or county clerks or other election officials. In Alaska, the signatures are submitted to the Lieutenant Governor. The process of signature submission can be somewhat idiosyncratic. For example, in Massachusetts, signatures are submitted to and processed by city clerks across the state. Once the signatures have been processed, initiative sponsors must retrieve the processed signatures from each individual office and then submit them to the Secretary of State. In Nebraska, the opposite is true. Signatures are submitted to the Secretary of State, then divided and shipped to county clerks in each of Nebraska’s 93 counties. The county clerks are then responsible for verifying the validity of the signatures.

There are three methods for verifying signatures: presumed valid, random sampling, and full check. Only Ohio and Oklahoma appear to presume signatures gathered are valid unless challenged in a lawsuit. In other states, there are more onerous signature verification processes which may impose a greater burden. Arizona, California, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington employ random sampling: a small percentage (typically 3%-5%) of petition signatures are randomly checked for validity, then the validity rate of the sample size is extrapolated to the total group of signatures to determine the probable number of valid signatures. All other states utilize the full check method, meaning every signature is scrutinized for validity.

There are a number of reasons a signature might be invalidated. If the signature is illegible or duplicated, or if the signatory’s name does not appear on the state’s voter rolls, or if the signatory’s signature doesn’t match the signature on the signatory’s voter registration card, then the individual signature is thrown out. Whole petition sheets containing many dozens of otherwise valid signatures can also be invalidated, for example if the petition circulator did not properly complete the circulator affidavit or if the petition sheet was incorrectly notarized. Because invalidated signatures are fairly common, initiative campaigns always aim to collect more signatures than are required to be certified for the ballot (normally around 20% more).


This essay is a project of Rethink Priorities. It was written by Peter Hurford and Jason Schukraft. Thanks to Josh Balk, Chloe Cockburn, Marcus A. Davis, Neil Dullaghan, Aaron Hamlin, David Moss, Michael Sadowsky, Michael St. Jules, Jonas Vollmer, and Daniela R. Waldhorn for helpful feedback. If you like our work, please consider subscribing to our newsletter. You can see all our work to date here.

Works Cited

Anderson, E. C., & Barrett, L. F. (2016). Affective beliefs influence the experience of eating meat. PLoS One, 11(8), e0160424.

Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(7), 614-626.

Damore, D. F., Bowler, S., & Nicholson, S. P. (2012). Agenda setting by direct democracy: Comparing the initiative and the referendum. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 12(4), 367-393.

Damore, D. F., & Nicholson, S. P. (2014). Mobilizing interests: group participation and competition in direct democracy elections. Political Behavior, 36(3), 535-552.

Graves, L. (2012). Local Ballot Initiatives: How citizens change laws with clipboards, conversations, and campaigns. Lucy Burns Institute: Madison, Wisconsin.

Lutz, B. J., & Lutz, J. M. (2011). Interest groups and pro-animal rights legislation. Society & Animals, 19(3), 261-277.

Matsusaka, J. G. (2018). Public policy and the initiative and referendum: a survey with some new evidence. Public Choice, 174(1-2), 107-143.

Matsusaka, J. G., & Hasen, R. L. (2010). Aggressive enforcement of the single subject rule. Election Law Journal, 9(4), 399-419.

Kaufmann, B., Büchi, R., & Braun, N. (2010). Guidebook to direct democracy in Switzerland and beyond. The Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe.

Primo, D. M. (2013). Information at the margin: campaign finance disclosure laws, ballot issues, and voter knowledge. Election Law Journal, 12(2), 114-129.

Smithson, K., Corbin, M., Lusk, J. L., & Norwood, F. B. (2014). Predicting state-wide votes on ballot initiatives to ban battery cages and gestation crates. Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 46(1), 107-124.

Staszewski, G. (2013). Contestatory Democracy and the Interpretation of Popular Initiatives. Seton Hall L. Rev., 43, 1165.

Tonsor, G. T., & Olynk, N. J. (2011). Impacts of animal well‐being and welfare media on meat demand. Journal of Agricultural Economics, 62(1), 59-72.

Yoon, Y., Gürhan‐Canli, Z., & Schwarz, N. (2006). The effect of corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities on companies with bad reputations. Journal of consumer psychology, 16(4), 377-390.


  1. Peter Hurford previously gave a talk on ballot initiatives as a pathway for EA policy at EA Global San Francisco 2019. ↩︎

  2. Some of the research in this series will only be released privately to trusted individuals and organizations to avoid publicizing sensitive strategic information. ↩︎

  3. That is to say, we think there is a decent chance that upon further reflection we would come to think that some of the potential initiative campaigns we discuss in this post would be net-negative in value. ↩︎

  4. The scope of this report excludes advisory-only ballot measures, which are non-binding. Advisory measures are typically used by legislators to gauge public opinion on a pertinent question. In the U.S. they are most commonly employed at the local level, though they have occasionally been used at the state-level as well. ↩︎

  5. Although ballot initiatives are supposed to become law automatically, there are a number of ways elected legislative bodies can attempt to slow implementation or modify the intent of the initiative. Court challenges can also delay or block implementation. We discuss these challenges later in the post. ↩︎

  6. Some authors refer to the former as citizens initiatives and the latter as legislatively-referred initiatives. ↩︎

  7. Another difference is that a referendum can be either binding or merely advisory, whereas an initiative, in the sense described here, is always binding. ↩︎

  8. At the city level, the same distinction is marked by ordinance initiatives versus charter initiatives. ↩︎

  9. In November 2018 ten measures made it to the ballot, seven of which were approved. ↩︎

  10. Initiatives are possible at the federal level in Switzerland but not in the United States. ↩︎

  11. Matsusaka 2018 writes, “Perhaps the most famous initiative historically is California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978 that sparked a national tax revolt” (110). Systemic flow-through effects like this can easily alter the net impact of a ballot initiative campaign, though it’s difficult to predict and quantify such effects. ↩︎

  12. Of course, it’s not a perfect heuristic. There may be subjects with no history of success that nevertheless look feasible now. (After all, every subject’s first win is by definition without precedent.) ↩︎

  13. See this Open Philanthropy conversation with Lewis Bollard for more detail. ↩︎

  14. It’s worth noting that there were no veal crates in California at the time the initiative passed. ↩︎

  15. AB 1437 triggered a number of legal challenges. See the section on ballot initiative limitations for further discussion. ↩︎

  16. See this 2015 HSUS annual report and this 2017 Open Philanthropy blog post for more on the connection between Prop 2 and corporate cage-free campaigns. ↩︎

  17. Prop 2 inspired a similar initiative in Massachusetts in 2016. Question 3 banned the production and sale of eggs, veal, and pork from animals confined in battery cages, veal crates, and gestation crates, and, like California, the Massachusetts ban also applies to animals raised in other states to be sold in the state. ↩︎

  18. Prop 12 also changed the way the new regulations would be enforced. Prop 2 hadn’t included any implementation language authorizing a statewide department to enforce it, so the burden of policing the new restrictions fell to local law enforcement agencies, which largely ignored the requirements. Prop 12 charged both the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health with implementation and enforcement. ↩︎

  19. Sentience Politics has also qualified an initiative in the Swiss Canton of Basel-Stadt to grant nonhuman primates constitutional rights to life and bodily and mental integrity. The vote is expected sometime in 2021. Even if unsuccessful, so-called personhood initiatives such as this might aid moral circle expansion. ↩︎

  20. Although this section focuses on farmed animal welfare, wild animal welfare has also had some moderate success at the ballot box. For example, Washington’s 2015 Initiative 1401 bans trade in endangered species and their parts (such as ivory) in the state. 1401 inspired a similar initiative in Oregon that was successfully passed the following year. Although the number of animals affected by these initiatives is small, they may help grow the wild animal welfare movement in the same way that early victories in Florida and Arizona did for the farmed animal welfare movement. ↩︎

  21. Improving the way redistricting is conducted is another plausible method for reducing partisanship, and several redistricting reforms have recently been put to voters via ballot initiatives. In 2018 five states (Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah) voted to limit political control over and increase the transparency of the redistricting process. ↩︎

  22. Other alternative voting methods with similar aims have recently been put to voters via the initiative process. Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016 (though it has yet to implement it) and New York City just passed a ranked-choice voting ballot measure in November 2019. In 2020, initiatives could put ranked-choice voting on the ballot in Alaska, Massachusetts, and Nevada. STAR voting was on the ballot in Lane County, Oregon in 2018, but it failed. ↩︎

  23. Four of the five ballot measures discussed in this paragraph were placed on the ballot by the respective local governments and thus were not technically citizen’s initiatives. (Seattle is the exception.) Still, the examples are relevant because they show support for campaign finance reform at the ballot box. ↩︎

  24. What exactly constitutes the completion of a sentence is currently under legal review. See the section on ballot initiative limitations for more discussion. ↩︎

  25. According to a report from The Washington Economics Group, “restoring the eligibility to vote for eligible felons has the potential to increase their successful reintegration into… the economy through gainful employment. [...] With higher-incomes, eligible felons would be able to afford living in less-disadvantaged areas, which is associated with better employment outcomes after release and less recidivism” (6). ↩︎

  26. The initiatives were successful in Lucerne and Zurich and rejected in Basel. The original aim of these proposals was to promote animal welfare and moral circle expansion. Thanks to Jonas Vollmer for bringing this to my attention. ↩︎

  27. Technically, WA SJR 8200 was a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment, not a citizen’s initiative. ↩︎

  28. Washington lies along the Cascadia Subduction Zone and is thus susceptible to earthquake-triggered tsunamis. However, the provisions that the ballot measure establish could be invoked during any disaster. ↩︎

  29. Washington’s constitution already had a similar provision that applied in case of enemy attack on the state, so there is a legal precedent for this sort of amendment. ↩︎

  30. Vermont (2018) and Illinois (2019) legalized marijuana through the normal legislative process. ↩︎

  31. Thanks to Michael Sadowsky for this point. ↩︎

  32. Thanks to Chloe Cockburn for this point. ↩︎

  33. For examples of the revolving door in the U.S. agriculture industry, see here and here. ↩︎

  34. A petition drive management company is a for-profit organization that specializes in collecting signatures for ballot initiatives. ↩︎

  35. Damore and Nicholson add in a later paper, “our results offer an interesting complement to work demonstrating that ballot measures addressing social issues increase voter awareness (Nicholson 2003) and turnout (Biggers 2011). Aside from media attention, there is little understanding of what causes these effects. Our analysis suggests one potential driver—the activity of groups. Obviously, this claim is speculative, but it does suggest an avenue for future research” (547). ↩︎

  36. Jonas Vollmer, chief organizer of the initiative campaign and author of the cited post, now believes some of this reasoning was partly misguided (personal communication). In particular, he believes that he underestimated the risk of a public debate about EA going very badly and that in the terminology of the Awareness/Inclination Model of movement growth, the cited post over-emphasized awareness at the expense of inclination. Thus, Jonas no longer endorses the claim that “the movement-building benefits alone would make the initiative a worthwhile project.” ↩︎

  37. More speculatively, it is sometimes said that proponents of marriage equality galvanized opposition as often as support, that anti-tobacco drives do not persuade smokers to give up the habit, and that advertising for animal welfare reforms reduces the appeal of those reforms to conservatives. ↩︎

  38. Additionally, initiatives also often require the support of a local group (even if the opportunity was identified by a national organization), lest the campaign be accused of being run by outsiders. This often means having to support the local group’s infrastructure so that they can be the main voice. Thanks to Aaron Hamlin for this point. ↩︎

  39. Bear in mind that it’s possible some initiative campaigns could have spent significantly less and still have been successful. Initiative campaigns tend to spend about as much as they raise. So even if an initiative campaign estimates that spending $10 million will be enough to secure approval, if the campaign happens to raise $12 million, it is probably not going to return the final $2 million. ↩︎

  40. Graph credit: Neil Dullaghan ↩︎

  41. Neil Dullaghan performed the research for this section. ↩︎

  42. See this Ballotpedia page for a list of campaign finance websites for states that allow ballot measures. ↩︎

  43. Post-election constitutionality challenges only apply to initiatives that are approved. ↩︎

  44. The vagueness charged stemmed from the fact that the initiative did not specify minimum dimensions required for compliance. A new initiative, California’s successful 2018 Proposition 12, rectified this concern by establishing exact dimensions for veal calves, layer hens, and breeding pigs. ↩︎

  45. These ambiguities are sometimes the result of inexperienced initiative sponsors without access to political or statutory expertise using inappropriately vague or imprecise language. But sometimes the ambiguities are deliberate and strategic (Staszewski 2013: 1167) ↩︎

  46. The total number of alterations is higher, but sometimes an amendment is introduced to further the purposes of the initiative and is thus supported by the initiative’s proponents. ↩︎

  47. Because the changes become part of the state’s constitution, initiated constitutional amendments cannot be directly amended or repealed by state legislatures. ↩︎

  48. In Arizona, voter approval is only required for substantial legislative changes. The legislature can make minor changes with a three-fourths supermajority vote. ↩︎

  49. Despite deep pockets, the animal agriculture industry has yet to put up much resistance to animal welfare initiatives, though animal advocates aren’t taking any chances. According to data available from Ballotpedia here, supporters of Prop 12 outspent opponents by about 30:1. ↩︎

  50. Eight states require preliminary signatures to be collected prior to submitting the petition for approval, however this requirement is significantly less burdensome than the post-approval requirement. Ohio and Oregon require 1000 resident voters to pre-sign the petition, Alaska 100, North Dakota 25, Idaho 20, Maine 5, Wyoming 3, and Washington 1. ↩︎

  51. For example, of the 49 measures since 2008 listed under “Treatment of Animals” on Ballotpedia, 22 of them did not make it onto the ballot because of a failure to obtain and certify the required number of signatures - this accounts for about half of all attempted animal measures and accounts for 64.7% of animal measures that did not make the ballot. ↩︎

  52. Percentage requirements for signatures on initiated constitutional amendments range from a low of 3 percent of total votes cast for governor in Massachusetts (64,750 for 2020 ballot access), to a high of 15 percent of total votes cast for governor in Arizona (356,467 for 2020 ballot access) and Oklahoma (177,958 for 2020 ballot access). Once again, however, thanks to its large population, California has the highest total actual signature requirement for 2020 ballot access at 997,139 (equal to 8 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election). ↩︎

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

As I already mentioned via email, I think this is an excellent post.

I just noticed that I overlooked one point when giving feedback: The main idea behind Sentience Politics' "sustainable nutrition" initiatives was also to promote animal welfare and expand the moral circle (through reducing meat consumption). The environmental benefits are also significant, but weren't the primary motivation.

Hi Jonas, thanks for the comment. I'll change the main text and accompanying footnote to make clear environmental benefits were not the main aim of the initiatives.

You should correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the proposals were eventually weakened to the point that conservation of resources became the primary (perhaps sole?) focus.

You should correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the proposals were eventually weakened to the point that conservation of resources became the primary (perhaps sole?) focus.

"Primary focus" seems correct. The resulting legal texts didn't mention plant-based food anymore, if I recall correctly, but still led to a reduction in meat consumption/portions, so in that sense they were still somewhat successful.

I suppose issues where we can "pull the rope sideways" could be worthwhile, and some of the issues mentioned here might be examples. Making development assistance more cost-effective is kind of orthogonal to having more or less of it.



This post helped establish ballot initiatives as an underapprechiated way to do good within effective altruism in a variety of cause areas. However, since the post was published, Rethink Priorities (the author organization of this post) did not end up doing much more work in ballot initiatives and as far as I know, no one advancing ballot initiatives within effective altruism was specifically motivated to do so by this post (though it's possible some efforts were still sped up on the margin). So I think this post did not end up having the impact that I was expecting it to have.

Another important update since this post was written is that I've personally become more skittish about doing ballot initiatives without strong coordination within the movement, since I think there's an underapprechiated risk of doing harm by launching an initiative that is poorly thought out, legally challenged, and/or that crowds out a superior initiative.

Note/Disclaimer: Jason wrote this post as part of his work at Rethink Priorities. I, as co-CEO of Rethink Priorities, supervised the creation of this post. I'm writing this review in a personal capacity as a personal reflection and did not show it to anyone else at Rethink Priorities, so it's possible this review might be missing important details or be wrong, and it should not be taken as an official Rethink Priorities organizational view.

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