How an Initiative Gets to the Ballot

You’ve probably encountered petitioners out gathering signatures for initiatives they hope to get on the ballot. But how much do you know about the process an initiative must go through before it can go before the voters? It’s a complicated process, but the State of Colorado has resources online that can help make the process easy to understand, whether you want to file an initiative yourself or are researching the initiatives currently under consideration.

The process for filing an initiative is governed by state statute. The Colorado General Assembly has a helpful page, How to File Initiatives, on their website. This page walks users through each step required in the filing process, along with deadline dates. There’s also an explanation of why only certain types of initiatives can be filed for odd-year elections. This means that most of the initiatives that are currently in process are for the 2022 ballot, rather than for this year’s.

There is a lot that has to happen before signatures can be gathered. First, proposals must be sent to the Colorado Legislative Council for review, comment, and revision. Once an applicant makes it past this step, they must file the proposal with the Secretary of State’s office. It then goes through the title setting process, which is conducted through hearings of the state Title Board. It is only after the Board approves a title – the language of which must only address a single subject – that petition circulation can finally begin. After signatures are gathered, which must be no later than three months before the election, the signatures must be submitted to the Secretary of State for verification. This process takes a random sample of the signatures to make sure they are valid, i.e., that the signatory is a registered Colorado voter. If the validation process reveals that not enough of the signatures were valid, the initiative cannot go forward onto the ballot. If the petition is found to have a sufficient number of valid signatures, however, it can then be placed on the ballot and an analysis will appear in that year’s Blue Book. The writing of this analysis has its own process which must be followed in order to present an impartial summary of the initiative with equal numbers of arguments for and against.

As of this writing, 40 initiatives have been filed for the 2021 and 2022 ballots. A list of these initiatives, along with associated documents, can be viewed on the General Assembly’s website. Prior years’ initiatives can also be accessed on the site. In addition, the Secretary of State’s website also includes a list of initiatives that have been approved, denied, or withdrawn.

Not all of the measures appearing on the ballot have gone through the initiative process; some measures are referred to the voters by the Legislature. If you’re looking for Colorado ballot history, the Colorado Legislative Council has compiled a database of all of the initiatives and referenda that have appeared on each year’s ballot all the way back to 1880, along with the voting results. Also, in our library you can find digital copies of Blue Books back to 1954.