Qualifying Ballot Measures

Steps to qualifying ballot measures

Qualifying ballot measures: Tips For Getting a measure on the Ballot

Qualifying ballot measures is a significant undertaking. Sometimes the most difficult part of a ballot measure campaign is just making it to the ballot. From gathering signatures to overcoming legal hurdles, qualifying an initiative takes planning, time, and (very often) a sizable investment (both in terms of dollars and human capital). Advocacy and political organizations alike have long used ballot measures as a tool to advance their policy objectives where legislative options aren’t workable. From raising the tobacco tax to minimum wage increases, the content of the initiatives may differ, but they all have at least one thing in common: they have to qualify.

1. Do your homework. Different places have different requirements for qualifying ballot measures. These requirements usually involve voter-signed petitions, but even that isn’t universal. It’s important to research 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 a lawyer. Whether you are just thinking about it or you know you are ready to move forward with a ballot measure, hire a lawyer early in the process. In many places qualifying ballot measures is very technical, so it’s advisable to hire an attorney who has ballot measure experience (the last thing you want is to spend all that money on signature gathering and have the measure kicked off for technical reasons that could have been side-stepped). Your lawyer will help you form the committee, review all the procedures, review the language and keep you current on requisite filings.

3. Poll! 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’re facing 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.Test exact language. Again, we can’t overstate how important polling is in qualifying ballot measures. 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 one that tested best. If voters can’t understand it, or it’s too confusing for them to understand, you’ve got problems. Your attorney can help here by letting you know how long the language can be and what you can and can’t say. Bottom line, there’s a world of difference between someone saying they support an issue and someone saying they’ll vote yes after reading the legal language that appears on a ballot. Make sure you dig into that.

5. Build a coalition. Qualifying ballot measures 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. Have honest conversations and seek out hard commitments. Organizations support ballot initiatives in a variety of ways, from simply lending their name to a supporters list to in-kind donations to monetary commitments. As you embark on qualifying ballot measures, make sure you go in with your eyes open about what potential partners are willing to bring to the table—both in terms of qualifying (which is typically expensive) and waging a subsequent campaign.

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

8. Don’t forget about legislative action. In some places, particularly at the municipal level, an elected body can take up an 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 savvy initiatives 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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Ballot Initiative, Ballot Measure, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, Ballot Language, ballot measure planning, qualifying a ballot measure