voting & ballot initiatives


For the world's oldest democracy, America doesn't have the best rep when it comes to voting. This page takes a look at exactly how civic minded we are on election day.

Also, the 2000 presidential election put punch cards problems on centerstage, but the modern electronic alternatives that were supposed to be an improvement in '04 presented their own accuracy and security problems.

Finally, ballot initiatives are an old, but ongoing, story; critics complain that while they put the people directly in the decision making role, they don't always make for rational long-term policy, but instead lock legislators into fixed funding promises.

Voter participation

Presidential elections 

Voter-eligible population does not include non-citizen residents and other ineligible adults such as convicted felons. Source: Fairvote & GMU

Congressional Elections Census (pdf)

Voter turnout and registration for Congressional elections has decreased ever since the 1960's

  • 1966 – 55% of the population voted (70% registered)
  • 2002 – 42% of the population voted (60% registered)

Voting Machines

  • Voting methods and what percentage of people were using them in 1996 (FEC) and 2004 (EDS - pdf) and will use them in 2006 (EDS - pdf). Note: EDS does not include districts that use multiple voting methods.

links to '96 numbers: paperballots, lever machines, punchcards, optical scan, electronic

Note: Electronic voting may have already seen its peak, according to these NYTimes' articles which reports that states and districts are going back to paper.

Ballot Initiatives and Referendums


Ballot initiatives and referendums are ways to take decisions – about changing the law or a constitution – straight to the people. Although there's some fuzziness in how the terms are used,

  • “initiatives” are generally measures on the ballot that start with the people (by petition),

  • “referendums” can either be votes placed on the ballot by the people to approve or nix a law already passed by the legislature – or placed on the ballot by a state legislature itself to get the approval of the people.

How many states use them

  • 24 states have an initiative process, of those:

    • 18 states have it to change the state's constitution, while

    • 21 states have an initiative process to change/create a law

  • 49 states have the kind of referendum that starts with the state legislature, while 24 have the voter initiated kind.

How often they're used (starting from the first in Oregon in 1904)

copied and pasted from IRI - chart just refers to initiatives and referenda that started with the people (not lawmakers)

Number of people-started initiatives and referenda in recent years:

  • '04: 62

  • '02: 53

Popular initiatives and referendums issues – a sampling from 2004 IRI

  • Same sex marriage – 13 states

  • Gambling – 6 states

  • Education – 3 states

  • Hunting – 4 states

  • Marijuana – 3 states

see IRI for a full listing of initiatives

Where the facts are from:

See also Federal Election Commission and Electiononline, a Pew outfit aiming to report nonpartsan-ly on voting issues.


  • For endless background info on the reliability of electronic voting systems, see this 2005 GAO report (pdf). Verified Voting (an advocacy group) reports on how many states have required paper records for votes.

Facts pulled together with Steven Cytryn. Updated 12.15.08.

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