Referendum and Ballot Measures

Wisconsin ballot measures come in two varieties:

  1. Legislatively referred constitutional amendment – A constitutional amendment that appears on a state’s ballot as a ballot measure because the state legislature in that state voted to put it before the voters. In Wisconsin, Section 1 of Article XII of the state Constitution states that amendments of the constitution must be approved by two consecutive legislatures and then put to vote by the citizens.

 2. Advisory questions. These referendums give elected officials a sense of where the citizens are on an issue, but the result of the vote does not bind the officials to take or not take a particular action.

Wisconsin is one of 24 states that do not have initiative and referendum. An initiative and referendum process allows citizens to put a measure directly on the ballot by garnering enough signatures on a petition. This process cuts out the state legislature.

Occasionally the Wisconsin Elections Commission receives inquiries regarding the process for reviewing petitions requesting a local advisory referendum and the process for conducting such elections. In addition, it has become increasingly popular for interested groups to organize coordinated campaigns promoting advisory referendum petitions at the municipal and county levels on specific topics in order to encourage state or federal policymakers to consider the results of referendum elections regarding the same or similar questions. In the minds of some, advisory referendum elections can be an important opportunity for public input into policymaking decisions. To others, an advisory referendum election is simply a “glorified straw poll” and detracts from the principles of representative democracy. Many believe such measures are actually intended to get people to the polls to vote on the issue by making them think the referendum really means something and will make a difference.

As a general matter, the definition of “referendum” in Wis. Stat. § 5.02(16s) includes elections involving advisory, validating, or ratifying questions. Therefore, if an advisory referendum election is ordered by a governing body, it must comply with the administrative requirements of other elections. But there is no right of citizens to petition for an advisory election contained in the Wisconsin Constitution or Wisconsin Statutes. Nevertheless, citizens and local policymakers sometimes advocate using an advisory referendum election to gauge the public’s support for or opposition to either specific projects or policy decisions. Advisory referendum petitions are distinct from direct legislation petitions which may be submitted in Wisconsin cities and villages, the review and processing of which are governed by Wis. Stat. § 9.20.

CLICK HERE for Advisory Referendum Q&A