Wisconsin State Capitol building
The Wisconsin State Capitol building is photographed on April 12, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)
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Wisconsin Watch readers have submitted questions to our statehouse team, and we’ll answer them in our series, Ask Wisconsin Watch. Have a question about state government? Ask it here.

Question: “Why are we, as citizens, not able to request a ballot referendum?”

Neither the state constitution nor state statutes provide an avenue for Wisconsinites to bypass the Legislature via a petition to enact — or reject — a new state law or amend the constitution, and it’s been that way since Wisconsin became a state in 1848.

While there is also not a way for voters to create or change laws or amend the constitution at the national level, 24 states do have a process for voters to enact or reject laws or amend the constitution via statewide votes, including Michigan and Ohio.

A constitutional amendment that would have created a ballot initiative process for Wisconsinites was put before voters in November 1914 — before women’s suffrage — but voters at the time rejected the amendment, with 64% voting against it, according to a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, supports allowing voters to bring their own ballot initiatives. In September 2022, in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, he called a special session of the Legislature to consider a constitutional amendment that would create a process for voters to trigger statewide referendums. Republican lawmakers ended that special session in seconds without considering the amendment.

Wisconsin law requires voters to weigh in via referendum in three instances: ratifying or rejecting constitutional amendments, “any authorization of statewide debt in excess of constitutional limits” and extending “the right to vote to additional classes of people,” according to LRB.

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Jack Kelly joined Wisconsin Watch in August 2023 as a statehouse reporter. He previously was a Wisconsin Watch contributing reporter on judicial and environmental issues and covered the statehouse for the Capital Times. He has a bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.