There are two basic kinds of state ballot questions:
- Referendums are votes for or against laws that have already been passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor. Certain actions - such as passing state constitutional amendments or bond measures - can automatically trigger voter referendums, and all 50 states require an automatic referendum under certain circumstances. Citizens in 23 states can also petition for a referendum to overturn any law.
- Initiatives appear on the ballot when individual citizens (which includes interest groups and lobbies) gather the requisite number of signatures of support by the state deadline. Voters in 26 states can put initiatives or popular referendums on the ballot, and this year, forty-two citizen-initiated measures have qualified for the ballot.
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that there are usually around 200 total ballot measures in national election years. In the past 10 general elections dating back to 1990, voters approved 1,204 of 1,943 measures that appeared on state ballots. That 62% success rate has been fairly constant, and only once in that period did fewer than half of the ballot measures pass (in 1990 only 42% were approved). The highest rate of passed ballot measures in that period was in 1998, when 175 of 236 proposed ballot questions – 74% – were approved.