Ballot initiative process: A primer |

Ballot initiative process: A primer

Direct democracy came to Colorado with the first ballot initiative that went before voters in 1880, an amendment regarding Uniform Taxes. It read: To Submit to the Qualified Electors of the State of Colorado an Amendment to Section Three of Article 10 of the Constitution of the State of Colorado, concerning Revenue. SECTION 3. All taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of subjects within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws, which shall prescribe such regulations as shall secure a just valuation for taxation all property, real and personal; Provided, That mines and mining claims bearing gold, silver and other precious metals (except the net proceeds and surface improvements thereof), shall be exempt from taxation for the period of ten years from the date of the adoption this Constitution; and thereafter may be taxed as provided by law; And, provided further, That the household goods of every person being the head of a family, to the value of two hundred dollars, shall be exempt from taxation. Ditches, canals and flumes, owned and used by individuals or corporations for irrigating lands, owned by such individuals or corporations, the individual members thereof, shall not be separately taxed so long as they shall be owned and used exclusively for such purpose.

The referendum passed 19,198 (84.8%) to 3,463 (15.2%) and was adopted on Nov. 2, 1880. A referendum, like an initiative, allows citizens of the 26 states with initiative and referendum processes, including Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The initiative process allows citizens to propose a new statute, or change to state laws, or a constitutional amendment, a change to the state constitution. Alternately, the referendum process allows citizens to refer a law that passed the legislature to the ballot for voters to decide whether to uphold or repeal the law.


According to Legislative Council Staff, the process for a citizen to bring forth a proposed ballot measure begins with submitting a draft of the initiative to change the Colorado Revised Statutes or amend the constitution to their office. Once the proposed measure is submitted with the names and addresses of two proponents, the Legislative Council staff, and the Office of Legislative Legal Services (OLLS) meet with the proponents to comment upon the contents and format of the petition. This review and comment, which is currently done virtually, is open to the public, is broadcast and a recording is available on the Secretary of State website. Prior to the meeting, the proponents (there must be two and both must attend all meetings) will be sent a Review and Comment Memorandum from OLLS and LCS staff with substantive and technical comments, questions, and the staff’s understanding of the proposal’s major purposes. At the meeting, the staff reads the memorandum aloud and proponents, and their attorney if they have one, are able to address the questions and comments of staff. The proponents may choose to take the staff comments into consideration to guide changes to the proposal to be better prepared for the hearing before the Title Board, though they are not obligated to do so.

The ballot title, which is set by the Title Board, is the question that will be posed to voters to be answered with a yes/for or no/against vote. According to LCS staff member Ed DeCecco, a ballot title is a summary of what the initiative does and includes the single subject, a Constitutional requirement in Colorado, and central features of the proposal. It cannot include slogans or catch phrases and must be brief.


According to the Secretary of State, to procure a ballot title, the designated representatives must submit their finalized initiative to the Secretary of State and appear at a title board meeting. These meetings occur on the first and third Wednesdays from December through May. The Title Board consists of representatives from the Attorney General’s office, the Secretary of State’s office, and the OLLS. If the initiative is properly before the title board, and if the title board determines the measure has a single-subject, which is a constitutional requirement, then it will set a ballot title.

Prior to the title board meeting, LCS will prepare an initial fiscal impact statement and an abstract of the fiscal impact. These numbers are a sneak peak of the fiscal impacts that will be described in the Blue Book, and the abstract is used in the next phase in the initiative process.

Any registered voter in the state who is dissatisfied with the ballot title, the Title Board’s failure to set a title, or with the abstract prepared by LCS, he or she may file a motion for rehearing within seven days of the Title Board’s decision.

In the case of Initiative 16, opponents were granted a rehearing and, still unsatisfied with the title set, filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court on April 14. The appeal is filed on the grounds that the Initiative contains multiple subjects, it includes political catch phrases, it contains a politically charged redefinition of “sexual act with an animal,” the clear ballot title requirement was violated by the inclusion of including the politically charged catch phrases “cruelty to animals” and “animal cruelty,” and the inclusion of an unnecessarily graphic description of the elements of the redefined “sexual act with an animal.”


When the ballot title is set, proponents may move into the signature-gathering phrase. The state Constitution requires initiative petitions be signed by a number of registered electors in the state that is greater than or equal to 5% of the total number of votes cast for all candidates for the office of Secretary of State at the previous general election. According to DeCecco, paid petition circulators are used to help gather signatures.

A 2016 ballot initiative, Amendment 71, resulted in constitutional amendments requiring 2% of the total required signatures must also come from each senate district.

Signatures must submit their signed initiative petitions to the Secretary of State within six months of title setting, or three months prior to the election, whichever is sooner. The Secretary of State’s office will verify the signatures belong to registered electors using random sampling, and possibly a line-by-line analysis. If the signatures meet the constitutional requirements, the Secretary of State will assign the measure to the ballot. At that point, the secretary will assign consecutive numbers from one to 99 to constitutional proposals, now referred to as amendments. Statutory changes are numbered from 101-1999 and referred to as propositions.

The Blue Book is published by LCS and includes the full text of the initiative, the title, a fair and impartial analysis, and arguments for and against the measure. If the measure evokes TABOR, which was approved by voters in 1992, the Blue Book will also include fiscal information. Once finalized, the Blue Book is sent to every state residence with a registered voter.

To pass, an amendment requires 55% of the votes cast, unless the measure repeals a provision, in which case it requires a majority vote, which, according to DeCecco, is the same amount needed to pass an initiated statutory change. If approved by voters, the initiative will become part of the Colorado Constitution or Colorado Revised Statutes.


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