Ohio voters put abortion and marijuana on the ballot. Could that happen in North Carolina?

Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/

Ohio voters cemented the right to abortions and legalized recreational marijuana on Tuesday — but not in the traditional way laws get passed.

The voters themselves put abortion and marijuana on the ballot via citizen-led ballot initiatives, a process practiced in some states that allows major decisions to be made directly by the people, rather than entrusted to lawmakers.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, state policy on abortion and marijuana has been in the news this year, but the discussion has centered on what lawmakers would do. So what role do voters have? Here are answers to a few questions.

Can North Carolinians put abortion or other major decisions on the ballot?

The short answer is no.

Twenty-six states allow some form of citizen-initiated ballot measure, but North Carolina is not one of them. Nothing in the state constitution gives voters the ability to petition for certain initiatives to be placed directly on the ballot.

Lawmakers have introduced bills to allow this sort of measure in the past, but none have made it far.

But didn’t we vote on constitutional amendments in the past?

Yes — six of them as recently as 2018, in fact. However, although North Carolinians did get to directly vote on issues like voter ID and election boards, these amendments were proposed by the legislature, rather than voters themselves.

Lawmakers can send constitutional amendments to the voters if three-fifths of the state House and Senate approve the proposal.

That doesn’t always mean those amendments become set in stone, though. Two of the approved amendments from 2018 (voter ID and a cap on income tax) were challenged in court and temporarily blocked.

Why do other states have citizen initiatives, but not North Carolina?

Nebraska became the first state to allow citizen initiatives in 1897, followed by a slew of other mostly western states in the early 20th century.

“It grew in terms of the rise of populism and popular democracy, particularly in the Midwest, where that was very strong,” Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said. “Here in the South, it was much more traditional — the elites were the gatekeepers of politics and government.”

The populist and progressive movements emphasized direct-democracy reforms like recall elections and secret ballots in addition to citizen initiatives.

Today, the majority of states that allow citizen initiatives are still in the West, though Florida and Arkansas do allow citizens to initiate constitutional amendments as well.

Can NC residents put forth ballot initiatives on a local level?

In some municipalities, yes.

In 1917, as the progressive wave swept the West, direct democracy activists attempted to institute initiatives and referendums in North Carolina. Although it didn’t pass on a statewide level, the legislature approved the use of citizen initiatives for the first time in certain cities.

Today, most major cities, including Raleigh and Charlotte, allow some level of citizen initiatives.

Could North Carolina legalize citizen initiatives?

Yes, technically, but it seems very unlikely.

John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, said that in the last 30 years, no state has approved any new citizen initiative processes.

Allowing statewide citizen initiatives in North Carolina would require amending the state constitution, which would mean getting three-fifths of the state House and Senate on board. Then, a majority of voters would have to approve the amendment in an election.

Republicans, who have a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, have not expressed any interest in creating citizen initiatives.