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Ballot Measures, Big Bucks

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Getting an Initiative on the Ballot is Getting More Expensive. Everything is more expensive these days (read: inflation) – and that includes ballot initiatives.
Campaigns for ballot initiatives often spend hundreds of thousands to millions on collecting signatures, and they’ve been spending more on average over time. Since 2016, the average cost of a petition drive has increased 300% while the number of initiatives on the ballot decreased 61%.
A ballot initiative is a citizen-initiated ballot measure. The ballot initiative process allows citizens to propose statutes or constitutional amendments, depending on the state, and collect signatures to place their proposals on the ballot for voters to decide. Some states have an indirect process in which legislatures have the option to approve the proposals outright. Laws governing ballot initiative signature drives differ from state to state. Examples include differences in the number of signatures, the time allotted for signature drives, signature distribution requirements, restrictions on petition circulators, and how petition circulators can be paid.
In 2022, more than $118.29 million was spent on signature drives for 29 ballot initiatives. That’s an average of $4.08 million per signature drive, an increase from previous years. Costs have increased by about 300% since 2016. 
  • In 2020, the average total petition cost was $2.06 million. 
  • In 2018, the average cost was $1.13 million. 
  • In 2016, the average cost was $1.03 million.
 An additional method for understanding ballot initiative signature costs is cost-per-required-signature (CPRS). CPRS is calculated as a campaign’s total spending on signature gathering relative to the minimum number of signatures required. $12.70 was the average CPRS for 2022, meaning an average of $12.70 was spent to obtain each required signature. The average CPRS was $8.09 in 2020, $6.52 in 2018, and $6.93 in 2016. Arkansas had the highest average CPRS at $25.28 in 2022. Missouri had the second highest at $21.33. South Dakota ($4.03) and Massachusetts ($4.83) had the lowest average CPRS numbers. You can read more about Ballotpedia’s data analysis here
Campaigns highlighted COVID and labor shortages, which made hiring signature gatherers more difficult, as reasons for the higher costs in 2022. Some also cited recent changes in ballot measure law in certain states.
Along with this increase in petition costs, the number of citizen-initiated measures that qualified for the ballot decreased by 61% from 2016 to 2022, with 76 in 2016 and 30 in 2022.
The increase in signature costs and decrease in the number of qualifying initiatives could be connected. As signature drives get more expensive for ballot initiative campaigns, their success depends more on significant contributions from donors.
¹In 2022, 30 initiatives were on the ballot. Ballotpedia could not calculate signature gathering costs for one due to how expenditures are reported on the state’s campaign finance website. As this data is unavailable, South Dakota Amendment D was excluded from the calculations