Josh Altic

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Rhode Island voters approve $400 million in bonds in special election

Voters in Rhode Island approved all seven bond measures—totaling $400 million—in a special election on March 2. The Rhode Island Legislature referred the questions to the ballot.

Here are the details for all seven approved measures:

  • Question 1: Authorized $107.3 million in bonds for the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center, the Rhode Island College Clarke Science Building, and the Community College of Rhode Island
  • Question 2: Authorized $74 million in bonds for state beaches, parks, recreational facilities, and water projects
  • Question 3: Authorized $65 million in bonds for building and renovating housing projects
  • Question 4: Authorized $71.7 million in bonds for transportation infrastructure
  • Question 5: Authorized $15 million in bonds for the Early Childhood Care and Education Capital Fund
  • Question 6: Authorized $7 million in bonds for the Cultural Arts and the Economy Grant Program and the State Preservation Grants Program
  • Question 7: Authorized $60 million in bonds to fund improvements to industrial facilities infrastructure

In Rhode Island, the legislature must ask voters to issue general obligation bonds over $50,000, except in the case of war, insurrection, or invasion. To put a legislatively referred bond question before voters, a simple majority vote is required in both chambers.

Between 2008 and 2020, voters in Rhode Island had decided 22 bond measures, totaling $1.3 billion in principal value. Voters approved 100 percent of the bond measures, with support ranging from 55.23% (Question 2 of 2010) to 83.89% (Question 3 of 2016). The last odd-year bond election in Rhode Island was in 1985 where voters approved nine bond measures.

Burlington, Vermont, voters approve a measure March 2 to use ranked-choice voting for city council elections

Voters in Burlington, Vermont, approved Question 4 on March 2, 64% to 36%. Question 4 will implement ranked-choice voting (RCV) for city council elections beginning in March 2022. As a charter amendment, the measure must now be approved by the Vermont General Assembly and signed by the governor to be enacted.

The vote was the first time the city voters considered RCV after repealing it in 2010. In 2005, Burlington voters amended the city’s charter to implement RCV—referred to as instant runoff voting—for mayoral elections. The 2005 measure was approved, 64% to 36%. Ranked-choice voting was used in the 2006 and 2009 mayoral elections.

On March 2, 2010, voters repealed ranked-choice voting by a vote of 52% to 48%. The measure to repeal ranked-choice voting was placed on the ballot through a ballot initiative petition drive after the city’s 2009 mayoral election.

The Burlington City Council attempted to place a ranked-choice voting measure on the November 2020 ballot, but it was vetoed by Mayor Miro Weinberger (D) after it passed the city council, 6 to 5. It would have implemented RCV for city council, mayoral, and school commissioner elections. The council amended the measure to only include city council elections and reconsidered it for the March 2021 ballot. The city council approved it on September 22, 2020. Mayor Weinberger signed the measure on October 3, 2020. 

The Yes on 4: Better Ballot Burlington campaign was co-chaired by former Governor Howard Dean (D) and City Councilmember Zoraya Hightower (Vermont Progressive Party). Hightower said, “I believe [RCV] helps elect leaders that are more representative of our city and cities across the country.”

Mayor Weinberger opposed the amended measure, saying, “[Prior use of ranked-choice voting] led to campaigns being very hesitant to define differences and distinctions between themselves on substance because of concerns of alienating second and third votes from other candidates. I was a campaign chair of a mayoral election during that period. I just don’t think it worked well.”

A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.

As of 2021, one state (Maine) had implemented RCV at the state level, one state (Alaska) had adopted but not implemented RCV, eight states contained jurisdictions that had implemented RCV at some level, and another five states contained jurisdictions—including New York City—that had adopted but not yet implemented RCV in local elections.

Here’s a look at this year’s proposed changes to laws governing ballot measures

As of February 10, 2021, Ballotpedia had tracked 122 legislative proposals concerning ballot initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recalls in 34 states in 2021 legislative sessions.

• Legislation to enact or increase existing supermajority requirements for certain ballot measures was introduced in 2021 sessions in six states: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Proposed requirements range from 60% to two-thirds (66.67%). Some proposals apply only to citizen-initiated measures, some to constitutional amendments—both citizen-initiated and legislatively referred, and some to measures proposing tax increases or certain levels of funding allocation.

• Bills to increase initiative and referendum signature requirements or signature distribution requirements were introduced in Idaho and Missouri.

• Bills to enact single-subject rules for ballot initiatives were introduced in Arizona, Mississippi, and North Dakota.

• Bills to require certain disclosures and details regarding their single-subject rules were also introduced in 2021 in Nebraska and South Dakota.

• Proposals to establish statewide initiative, referendum, or recall processes were introduced in Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Tennessee, which are currently among the 24 states without the power of citizen-initiated statewide ballot measures.

• A proposal was also introduced in Illinois to remove the state’s very specific subject restriction on ballot initiatives and to establish a process for veto referendums. In Florida, a proposal was introduced to enact a process for initiated state statutes.

• Legislation to change rules for drafting and displaying ballot language, petition language, or voter guide language was introduced in California, Idaho, Missouri, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington.

• Other topics include signature removal, signature verification, filing fees, ballot and voter guide argument fees and requirements, deadlines and process changes, procedures and requirements for legal challenges, and election date requirements.

Many changes—including most proposals to change signature requirements, add or change supermajority requirements, or establish a statewide process for initiative or referendum—are constitutional amendments, which means after legislative approval they would require voter approval to be enacted.

Additional reading:

Federal judge blocks Maine’s ban on out-of-state initiative petition circulators 

On Feb. 16, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock blocked Maine from enforcing provisions of its state constitution and a 2015 law requiring petition circulators to be registered voters, and, therefore, state residents. Woodcock ruled that “the First Amendment’s free speech protections trump the state’s regulatory authority.” Secretary of State Shenna Bellows could appeal the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling also said, “The Court framed its opinion as a prelude to a challenge to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for a more authoritative ruling.”

The ruling makes it possible for proponents of a 2022 ballot initiative that would amend the state’s voter qualification statute to say that a person must be a citizen to vote to qualify the measure for the 2022 ballot. Rep. William Faulkingham (R-136) initially filed the ballot initiative in 2019 and, after suspending the campaign due to a lack of funds that year, relaunched it targeting the 2022 ballot.

Rep. Faulkingham, his political action committee We the People PAC, the Liberty Initiative Fund—which is providing funding for signature gathering—and Nicholas Kowalski—a petition circulator from Michigan—were plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “ballot access rules which reduce the pool of available circulators of initiative petitions is a severe impairment” and that residency requirements significantly impede their ability to qualify their measure for the ballot. Plaintiffs also argued that the circulator restrictions prevent them from associating with a large portion of the available professional petition circulators and that requiring out-of-state circulators to register with the state is sufficient to safeguard the integrity of the initiative process.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn were named as defendants. They argued that many other initiatives and veto referendums have successfully qualified for the ballot while adhering to the state’s circulator requirements, proving the requirements are not a severe burden on free speech. The defendants also said that the state’s circulator requirements have been upheld by state courts and that the circulator requirements are necessary for the state’s interests in protecting the integrity of the initiative process and “protecting the initiative’s grassroots nature.”

Proponents used professional out-of-state petition circulators along with volunteers and paid in-state petition circulators starting on Nov. 3 to collect signatures. The plaintiffs also filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against Maine’s residency requirement on Dec. 30, 2020.

The plaintiffs said they competed with No CMP Corridor, the campaign behind an initiative concerning approval of certain electric transmission lines, for in-state professional circulators. Plaintiffs said they were able to find no more than six available professional circulators that were Maine residents. The campaign reported gathering 38,000 signatures by Jan. 25, 2021, and said that 90% of the signatures were collected by the 49 out-of-state professional circulators. The remaining 10% were gathered by six in-state professional petition circulators, 24 volunteer circulators, and 42 paid in-state circulators.

As of Feb. 17, Faulkingham said the campaign had gathered 88,000 signatures. A total of 63,067 valid signatures are required by Feb. 26, 2021, to qualify the measure for the 2022 ballot. Woodcock’s ruling, provided it is not appealed or is upheld upon appeal, allows the initiative campaign to use the signatures collected by out-of-state circulators.

Similar measures explicitly requiring citizenship to vote were approved by voters in Alabama, Colorado, and Florida in 2020 and in North Dakota in 2018.

As of February 2021, seven states—out of the 26 with a statewide initiative or veto referendum process—had residency requirements for ballot initiative petition circulators. An additional three states—Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi—had requirements in their laws, but federal courts had invalidated or blocked the enforcement of the laws.

Additional Reading:

Year-end analysis of local ballot measures in the top 100 largest cities in the U.S.

There were 314 local measures on the ballot for voters in the nation’s 100 largest cities in 2020. These spanned 26 different states and Washington, D.C. Ballotpedia’s year-end analysis dives into approval rates, notable topics and measures, bond and tax measures, and the types of measures.

Here are some highlights:

  1. 252 measures (80.3%) were approved, and 62 (19.7%) were defeated. There were 109 (34.7%) in California.
  2. 174 measures (55.4%) proposed bond issues or taxes. Of those, 126 were approved, and 48 were defeated.
  3. There were 92 local bond measures. The measures proposed a total of $32.16 billion in bond money. Voters approved 67 measures amounting to $25.567 billion. Voters rejected 25 measures amounting to $6.593 billion.
  4. Twenty-two measures (7.0%) concerned elections, campaigns, voting, and term limits.
  5. Twenty measures (6.4%) concerned law enforcement or police policies.
  6. Washington, D.C., became the fifth city to decriminalize psilocybin and the first city to decriminalize all entheogenic plants and fungi.
  7. Fourteen measures were put on the ballot by initiative signature petitions, and 300 were referred to the ballot by city councils, county boards, school boards, special district boards, or, in two cases, state legislatures.

Ballotpedia’s analysis of California’s 2020 local ballot measures

California voters decided 719 local ballot measures across seven different election dates in 2020. 

Here are some highlights from Ballotpedia’s annual report on local ballot measures in California:

• Voters approved 62.4% percent of California’s local measures in 2020, which was 14 and 15 percentage points lower than their approval rates in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

• Bond and tax measures made up 70% of the local measures on the ballot in California.

• There were local ballot measures in every California county in 2020 but one. Los Angeles County had the most measures at 109. The median number of measures per county was nine.

• There were 191 local bond issues on ballots across California in 2020. Of that total, 182 (95.8%) were school bond issues.

• The approval rate for school bond measures in 2020 of 50.5% was the lowest in any even-numbered year since at least 2008. The average approval rate for school bond measures in even-numbered years from 2008 through 2018 was 83%.

• Local school bond measures proposed $30.7 billion in new debt. Voters approved $18.7 billion and rejected $12.0 billion.

• Voters in two cities in California approved measures to enact ranked-choice voting for city elections.

• There were eight local measures concerning law enforcement policies, police oversight, police practices, or law enforcement budgeting, not including tax measures designed to provide funding for law enforcement services. All eight measures were approved.

• Voters approved 46 (44.66%) and rejected 57 (55.34%) of the 103 parcel tax measures on the ballot. In 2018, voters approved 65% of parcel tax measures. In 2016, voters approved 64% of parcel tax measures.

• Voters approved 93 sales tax measures (71.5%) in 2020 and rejected 37 (28.5%). In 2018, voters approved 84% of sales tax measures. In 2016, voters approved 69% of sales tax measures.

California voters also decided 13 statewide ballot measures. Click here to read more about the 2020 statewide measures.

Ballotpedia covers all statewide ballot measures, all local ballot measures in the 100 largest cities in the U.S., all local ballot measures in California, and a selection of other notable measures. In 2021, Ballotpedia will also cover all state capitals outside of the nation’s 100 largest cities.

Additional links:

Ballot measure records and firsts in 2020

2020 was a unique year for statewide ballot measures. Here are 12 ballot measure-related stories from 2020 that either never happened before or hadn’t happened in a very long time.

  1. Ballot measure campaign finance records were set nationally and in four states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Alaska.
  2. Gig economy policies appeared on a statewide ballot for the first time.
  3. Voters passed measures to enact a legal psilocybin mushroom program and drug decriminalization for all drugs for the first time.
  4. Legislators (rather than an initiative signature petition) put a marijuana legalization measure on the ballot for the first time.
  5. Voters decided the first-ever ballot measure on a state-run paid sick and parental leave program.
  6. A state adopted top-four primaries for the first time.
  7. Voters decided a statewide measure proposing a $15 per hour minimum wage for the first time.
  8. Voters, rather than legislators, decided to add their state to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
  9. Statewide initiatives qualified for the ballot through electronic signature petition drives for the first time.
  10. The first measure was referred to the ballot for Louisiana’s December election since at least 1974.
  11. The first constitutional amendments of local applicability were put on the statewide Alabama ballot according to a 2016 process change.
  12. Voters approved the first ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves.

25 states and D.C. will have increased minimum wages in 2021

In 2021, the minimum wage will increase in 25 states and Washington, D.C. The size of the increases range from $0.08 per hour (a 0.8% increase) in Minnesota to $2.25 per hour (a 31.03% increase) in Virginia, and the effective dates for the increases range from October 2020 to August 2021. Increases in 18 states are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2021.

After these increases occur, minimum wages will range from the $7.25 per hour Federal rate in 20 states to $15.00 per hour in D.C., $14.00 per hour in California, $13.69 per hour in Washington, and $13.50 per hour in Massachusetts. In New York and Oregon, state laws provide for regional minimum wages.

Below are some highlights from Ballotpedia’s annual report on minimum wage increases:

  • In 2021, the largest minimum wage increases based on state laws are $2.25 in Virginia ($7.25 to $9.50), $1.50 in New Mexico ($9.00 to $10.50) and Oregon ($11.25 to $12.75), and $1.44 in Florida ($8.56 to $10.00).
  • Eleven states are increasing their minimum wage due to citizen initiatives approved by voters. The remaining 14 states and D.C. will have minimum wage increases due to bills approved by lawmakers.
  • Nine states index their minimum wage to changes in cost-of-living or inflation; 13 states and D.C. have legislative bills scheduling specific increases; and three states have citizen-initiated measures scheduling specific increases.
  • Out of the nine states with minimum wages indexed to changes in cost-of-living or inflation, eight have minimum wage laws passed through ballot initiatives, and one has a minimum wage law passed by the legislature.
  • Florida voters approved Amendment 2 on November 3, 2020. The citizen initiative was the first time voters considered a ballot measure designed to set a $15 per hour minimum wage.
  • Four states passed minimum wage increase laws in 2020: one ballot initiative in Florida and three legislative bills in Rhode Island, Virginia, and Vermont.
  • Of the 30 states that have a minimum wage higher than the $7.25 per hour Federal minimum wage, 12 passed their existing minimum wage laws through ballot initiatives.
  • Michigan’s minimum wage law requires an adjustment to the state’s minimum wage based on inflation unless the average unemployment rate for the year is 8.5% or higher. In 2020, the average unemployment rate is expected to be higher than 8.5% and the scheduled increase from $9.65 to $9.87 per hour was canceled.

For all the details and data, read the full report here:

Minimum wage increases in 2021

Ballotpedia releases year-end analysis of statewide ballot measures

On December 15, Ballotpedia released its year-end analysis of statewide ballot measures in 2020.

Voters in 34 states decided 129 statewide ballot measures in 2020. Ninety-three were approved and 36 were defeated. One hundred and twenty measures were on the November 3 ballot. Nine measures were on ballots earlier in the year or on December 5. There were also three measures (one each) in the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. All three were approved.

Ballotpedia’s annual report on the 129 statewide measures provides:

a breakdown of measures by topic

highlighted topics and unique measures

a breakdown of approval rates by measure type

historical comparisons of the numbers and types of measures

data on citizen initiative activity compared to recent elections

a summary of signature petition drive costs

campaign finance data and analysis

a comparison of the number of referrals to previous years

a summary of Ballotpedia’s ballot language readability analysis

a summary of bond and tax measures in 2020

Below are some highlights from the report. For more information, graphics, and data, read the full analysis.

Topics and trends

Notable topics and trends this year included election policy and redistricting, marijuana, and taxes.

Statewide measures also included:

• the first-ever appearance of gig-economy policies on a statewide ballot, 

• unique psilocybin mushroom use and drug-crime policy measures, 

• wolf reintroduction, 

• a veto referendum on cash bail, 

• an affirmative action initiative, and 

• state flag and state name change measures.

Citizen initiative activity and historical context

The 129 statewide measures voted on this year were the lowest number on even-year ballots since at least 1980. The recent high point was in 1998, with 272 measures. This year’s total is 26% lower than the average of 172 statewide measures in even-numbered years from 2010 through 2018. 

The 43 citizen-initiated measures on the ballot were also less than in most recent years. The 2020 ballot initiative numbers were higher than in 2014, when 40 citizen-initiated measures made the ballot. It was 27% less than the 2010 to 2018 average of 59 measures. It was 43% lower than the 76 citizen-initiated measures in 2016. Of the 43 citizen initiatives, four were veto referendums, 15 were initiated constitutional amendments, and 24 were initiated state statutes.

In 2020, 881 initiative and veto referendum proposals were filed. In 2016 and 2018, there were 1,069 and 947 filings, respectively. Initiative sponsors had about a 5% success rate qualifying their measures for the ballot after making the initial filing with state officials. In 2016 and 2018, the success rate was 7%.

Signature petition costs

Of the 26 states that allow citizen-initiated measures, 16 had a ballot initiative, veto referendum, or both on the ballot in 2020. At least $87.23 million was spent on signature petition drives to collect the more than 11 million signatures required to qualify the 43 citizen-initiated measures for the ballot. 

The average cost of a petition drive in 2020 was $2.1 million—nearly double the 2018 average of $1.2 million and more than twice the 2010 to 2018 average of $871,468. The cost of successful paid signature petition drives ranged from $108,358 for a pre-November veto referendum in Maine to $8.8 million for Florida Amendment 4. 

The average cost per required signature (CPRS) for 2020 measures of $8.09 was 24% higher than the average in 2018 ($6.52) and nearly double the 2010 to 2018 average of $4.70.

Campaign finance

Committees supporting and opposing the 129 statewide measures this year reported raising a combined $1.20 billion in contributions. In 2016 and 2018, ballot campaigns raised $1.01 billion and $1.19 billion, respectively. The average amount raised in 2020 was $9.3 million, compared to $6.2 million and $7.1 million in 2016 and 2018.

The 43 citizen-initiated measures accounted for about 78% of ballot measure fundraising in 2020. Support campaigns raised 63.1% of contributions, and opposition campaigns raised 36.9%. 

California had 61.5% of all ballot measure campaign finance activity in 2020. Of the 10 most expensive measures in 2020, eight were citizen-initiated measures and two were legislatively referred measures. Six were in California. The other four were in Illinois, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Alaska.


The average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score for this year’s ballot titles was 17—equivalent to a first-year graduate school reading level. The average grade for all measures in a single state averaged together ranged from 10 in Rhode Island, Washington, and Wyoming to 32 in Virginia.

Bond and tax measures

Seven bond measures proposed a total of $20.82 billion in new debt in California ($20.5 billion), Maine ($120 million), and New Mexico ($199 million). A $15 billion school and college bond in California failed. The other six were approved.

Voters in 14 states decided 21 ballot measures on tax policy. Seventeen of the measures were approved and four were defeated.

Voter turnout in 2020 increased the ballot initiative signature requirements in 10 states

Voter turnout in 2020 elections caused a change in the number of valid signatures required for initiatives and veto referendums in 10 of the 26 states with at least one form of statewide initiative or referendum.

Signature requirements are determined differently depending on the state and, in 2022, will vary from 16,961 for initiated statutes in South Dakota to 997,139 for initiated amendments in California.

The majority of states with citizen-initiated measures—16—base signature requirements on ballots cast for gubernatorial candidates in the preceding gubernatorial election. Four states base signature requirements on total ballots cast in the preceding general election. Of the remaining states, three states base requirements on registered or active voters, one state bases requirements on voters for presidential candidates within the state, one state bases requirements on votes cast for secretary of state candidates, and one state bases requirements on the state population.

Below are some of the changes to ballot measure signature requirements caused by 2020 voter turnout:

• Ballot measure signature requirements increased by a range of between 7.4% and 44.2% in ten states.

• Signature requirements in the four states that base requirements on either presidential election turnout or gubernatorial election turnout in presidential election years increased by between 7.4% and 25%.

• Signature requirements for the four states that base requirements on general election turnout increased by between 26.8% and 44.2%.

• In those four states, turnout was higher than in 2016 as well, causing between 7.6% and 25.1% higher signature requirements than following the last presidential election.

• Signature requirements in the two states that base requirements on voter registration increased by 18% and 18.6%, respectively.

• Washington’s initiative signature requirement increased by 25% to 324,516 for 2021 through 2024. Since at least 2008 when the requirement was 224,880, Washington’s requirement has increased every four years by between 2% and 7%.

• Florida’s signature requirement for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments increased to 885,396 for 2022 and 2024. Since at least 2008 when the requirement was 611,009, Florida’s requirement has increased every four years by between 1% and 12%.

Read Ballotpedia’s full analysis on initiative signature requirement changes caused by 2020 voter turnout to get all of the details.