Qualifying Ballot Measures

by Phoebe Retta (She/Her)

Steps to qualifying ballot measures

Qualifying Ballot Measures - Not Easy.

Sometimes the most difficult part of ballot measure campaigns is qualifying ballot measures for the ballot. Advocacy and political organizations alike have long used ballot measures (or referendum, question, initiative, etc., depending on where you’re from) as a tool to advance their mission. It’s a way to get the public involved with your issue, and to show widespread support if successful. We’ve seen plenty of them here, from land preservation to marriage equality and while the content of the initiatives differ, they all have one thing in common: they have to qualify.  Here are 7 tips on qualifying a ballot measure:

1. Do your homework. Different areas have different requirements for qualifying a ballot measure. These requirements usually involve voter-signed petitions, but even that isn’t universal. So, it’s important to do detailed research at the specific level of government you are trying to affect. Some states that do not allow statewide initiatives contain municipalities that do allow it. Looking at the code or charter is a good place to start.

2. Hire an attorney. Whether you are just thinking about moving ahead or know you are ready to move forward with a ballot measure, hire an attorney early in the process. In many places, qualifying a ballot measure is very technical. Attorneys can be a critical hire in qualifying ballot measures. They will help you form a committee, review all the procedures, review the language, and keep you active on requisite filings.

3. Polling. This is critical when making your go/no-go decision. If your proposed ballot measure doesn’t have at least 70% support, with a good 55% of that being strong support, and you have real well-funded opposition, don’t waste your time and money at the ballot. As we've said before, a losing ballot measure does not make for a good voter education tool. We suggest doing this before a single signature is collected.

4. POLL! Again, we can’t overstate how important polling is in qualifying a ballot measure.  Test varied ballot measure language (some places call this a statement), exactly as it would appear on the ballot, in front of voters and use the version that tested best. If voters can’t understand it, or it’s too confusing for them to understand, your initiative will not pass. Your attorney can help here by letting you know how long it can be, and what you can and can’t say.

5. Build a coalition. Ballot-measure fights can suck up a lot of resources. The earlier you can build a broad base of supporters, the better. Reach out to less traditional allies if you think they may have a stake in the fight. The broader the coalition, the more appealing your initiative will seem to voters.

6. Ask for help. Whether you need to use some paid signature gatherers to qualify for the ballot in time, or just want to learn some best practices, don’t be afraid to reach out. The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) is a great resource for all things measure-related, including fundraising help.

7. Don’t forget about legislative action. In some places, particularly at the municipal level, an elected body can take up the issue in session once the requirements for the ballot have been met. If legislators see that your proposed ballot measure is salient to their constituents, they may pass it on their own and your work is done. Your lawyer can help to ensure they don’t sneak anything unseemly into the approved bill. In the past, I’ve seen impressive initiatives to gather signatures for the ballot AND lobby the legislative body at the same time, to ensure the issue is a success either way.

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