A ballot initiative is a process through which citizens propose and vote on new laws directly.
Ballot initiatives fall under the general category of a ballot measure, or a proposed legislation put to the electorate for a vote. The specific feature of a ballot initiative is that the proposed legislation also originates in the electorate: its sponsors collect signatures from the general public, which then gets to vote on it if sufficiently many signatures are collected. A ballot measure that instead originates in the government is called a referendum in the United States, though in other countries the term may be used more broadly to refer to any type of measure.
Ballot initiatives are relatively rare across the world: their use is concentrated in the United States and Switzerland, and only a few other countries allow and employ them with regularity. All 26 Swiss cantons permit ballot initiatives, as do 24 U.S. states and over half of U.S. cities.
Arguably, ballot initiatives are a more cost-effective way to influence legislation than traditional lobbying. This may be especially the case when the proposed legislation is opposed by powerful interest groups, such as agricultural lobbies opposing reforms to improve the welfare of farmed animals. Even failed initiatives can have significant positive impacts, by raising awareness about the relevant issues and by shifting public attitudes. And besides their direct impact, ballot initiatives can influence policy indirectly by motivating legislators and interest groups.
The financial cost of an initiative is uncertain in advance, so estimating the ex ante cost-effectiveness of an initiative can be difficult. In the United States, initiatives are also vulnerable to various legal challenges, which may further complicate the analysis. These concerns are to a certain degree alleviated for initiatives in areas with existing precedents. For example, there have been dozens of electoral reform initiatives in the U.S., and collected data about these attempts allow for reasonably robust estimates of many of the key uncertainties.
Organizations in the effective altruism community have relied on ballot initiatives to promote a variety of causes. The Center for Election Science was involved in successful initiatives to get approval voting adopted in the U.S. cities of Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri. Open Philanthropy granted $4 million to the campaign in favor of Proposition 12, which required cage-free housing and improved space requirements for farmed animals raised in California or used in the production of animal products sold in that state. Guarding Against Pandemics has recently funded a ballot initiative in Denver to promote research on pandemic-preparedness. In Switzerland, Sentience Politics has supported initiatives to grant fundamental rights for primates and to ban factory farming; and the Effective Altruism Foundation launched a ballot initiative that more than doubled Zurich's development aid budget....