What are Initiatives and Referendums?


Currently, 24 states have some form of initiative and referendum process. Citizens can use the ballot initiative process to implement laws on their own; conversely, a referendum places an existing law to a popular vote. In this activity, students explore the Code of Virginia to understand how laws can be proposed and possibly approved by the actions of citizens in the Commonwealth, they discuss state provisions, and can research local provisions for initiatives and referendums.


Activity 1

Before students analyze the Code of Virginia, have them complete and discuss the answers as a class to Handout #1: What are Initiatives and Referendums?

Activity 2

Distribute Handout #2: So You Want to Put a Referendum on the Ballot? Ask students to read each excerpt and respond to the questions.

Both of the excerpts are from the Code of Virginia and are found at the State Board of Elections website.

Group Discussion

Before having a class discussion, have students complete Handout #3: Group Discussion Questions.

Refer the State Board of Elections website.



A ballot initiative is a proposal to change or create a law at a local or state level. Instead of relying on the legislature to make all of the laws, citizens can use the ballot initiative process to implement laws on their own. Using the ballot initiative process, citizens can bring about a public vote on a proposed statue or constitutional amendment by gathering a pre-determined amount of signatures from registered voters and turning those signatures in to the state (


A referendum is a process by which a legislative measure is referred to the State’s voters for final approval or rejection. A referendum places a law that has already been passed by the legislature to a popular vote. Similar to a ballot initiative, it is a citizen led effort and requires a predetermined amount of signatures to qualify the measure to get on the ballot. The legislature can also place a bill to a legislative referendum (

Currently, 24 states have some form of initiative and referendum process. The State of Virginia requires that all legislation be enacted by the General Assembly. Voters in the State of Virginia are not allowed to circulate petitions to appear on the ballot statewide. Therefore, ballots in two separate localities may have different referendums on the ballots depending on issues the local government is facing at a given time.

Local issues are permitted to be placed on the ballot only if the question is authorized by statute or by charter.  In such cases, the question is specifically stated in either the county, city or town charter, or in the section of the Code of Virginia that permits the question.  Example: The Direct Election of School Board is found in § 22.1-57.2.  The signature requirements are also included in that section on the State Board of Elections website, linked above.


Conclude the lesson with a group discussion in which students answer the following questions:

  • Do you feel the State of Virginia should allow for statewide referendums and initiatives? Why or why not?
  • What would the General Assembly in Virginia have to do in order to allow for statewide initiatives and referendums?


A useful website to provide further information on initiatives and referendums for students can be found at The Citizens In Charge Foundation.  Teachers can use this website to further the student’s knowledge and understanding of the topic or as a substitute to the Code of Virginia for lower level students.

Teachers can also incorporate a copy of the state provisions for putting referendums on local ballots. Teachers could use this link to provide additional detail and understanding to the students.

If the teacher wants to extend this activity, students can conduct additional research on local referendums in Virginia and come up with referendums of their own either individually or in groups.

Resources for this activity: