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Thursday, June 20, 2024

A look into the history of ballot initiatives and referendums in Wisconsin

Ohio special election results pose questions as to the power of ballot initiatives and referendums in the state of Wisconsin, and how that might fare, in upcoming years.

Ohio voters made headlines in an Aug. 8 special election, prompting questions about Wisconsin’s ballot initiative process — a process in which voters can call for a popular vote referendum. 

Ohioans rejected Republican lawmaker-led changes attempting to modify the ballot initiative process by raising the threshold for a ballot initiative's passage from 50% to 60% approval in future elections.

Generally, a ballot initiative allows voters to invoke a direct vote in an election on proposed laws or constitutional amendments, bypassing the legislative body

Wisconsin differs from Ohio as the state of Wisconsin does not allow citizen-initiated ballot measures and instead opts for referendums brought to the table by the state Legislature. 

This lack of citizen-initiated ballot initiatives only applies to the state level, with one 1914 exception. According to the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), Wisconsin voters don’t have the power to utilize either initiatives or referendums on state ballots, but they can do so in the individual cities that make up the state. 

Wisconsin sees far more involvement from citizens through referendums rather than ballot initiatives. 

“The [referendum] initiative provides voters with an opportunity to enact laws directly, without involvement of the Legislature or governor. But the question on the ballot requires a yes or no answer,” said Dennis Dresang, professor emeritus of public affairs and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The referendum has the same limit, but it is only advisory. A referendum does not enact a law.” 

Referendums in Wisconsin are legally necessary when concerning statewide debt, any challenges to existing amendments or if voting rights are being extended to groups of people.

Why Wisconsin has stood firm in the state’s stance to only utilize referendums in recent years instead of initiatives like other states is “curious,” said Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor.

“It is curious that Wisconsin does not allow direct democracy in the form of ballot initiatives,” Burden said. “The state was at the forefront of the progressive movement more than a century ago that advocated for reforms of this type.”

Referendums in Wisconsin tend to vary across the board in terms of issue. But in the past decade, only three constitutional amendments have been placed on ballots for consideration by the Wisconsin electorate, according to the LRB. 

Dane County has recently attempted to utilize the referendum process.

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“Recent examples include a vote in spring that recommends that able-bodied people only receive welfare benefits if they are looking for work and another in November 2022 that supports legalizing marijuana for medicinal and recreational use,” Burden stated. 

Both referendums fared well with voters. Wisconsin vote #3 on last spring’s ballot regarding “able-bodied individuals and welfare benefits” passed with 79.5% of the statewide vote, and the November 2022 Dane County referendum for marijuana legalization passed among voters with a near equal number of yes votes — 82%. 

One can look at Ohio’s ballot initiative attempts and question if and how Wisconsin might see changes to its statewide process. 

Only time will truly tell the direction that the state of Wisconsin takes when it comes to whether or not a state-wide push for ballot initiatives will be allowed, or if Wisconsinites will continue to attempt to make their opinions heard through referendums instead.

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