Wearing party hats and dancing to Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5,” a roving flash mob visited fast food restaurants, gas stations and retail stores in Augusta, Maine, earlier this year to let these workers know that a higher hourly rate might be on the way.

The partiers belonged to a group pushing to let Maine voters decide whether to gradually increase the state minimum wage 64 percent by 2020.

Most of the time when Americans vote, they’re choosing officeholders to make and enforce the laws. But twenty-four states and Washington allow citizens at times to bypass legislators and vote directly on an issue through procedures known as initiative and referendum.

Most typically, a citizen petition with sufficient signatures places a question on the ballot. In California, where the procedure is most common, 365,880 signatures are required.

“At this point, it’s clearly become part of the culture,” said John Matsusaka, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. “People understand that government policy is going to involve the voters in these states. So if citizen groups don’t like what the legislature does, they automatically think, ‘I’m going to put something on the ballot.'”

Election signs on lawn in foreground; woman walking by in background (© AP Images)
In 2015, Michigan voters defeated a measure to add $1.2 billion of annual taxes a year to fix roads. (© AP Images)

Ballot measures can address all sorts of issues, from how much people get paid (the Maine example) to how their taxes are spent. Cincinnati residents once voted on whether to use tax dollars to build a new elephant house at the city zoo. Controversial issues sometimes get on the ballot more easily, since citizens with passion, drive and enough like-minded neighbors can usually qualify a measure.

Matsusaka observes that proponents of putting issues on the ballot typically argue that elected leaders don’t always do what the voters want. “In those situations,” they contend, “it’s healthy for democracy to have an option where the voters can come in and correct them. That’s the main argument.” Opponents, he adds, fear that policies favored by a simple majority may ignore the needs of minorities.

Between 150 and 200 measures are expected to qualify for ballots in 2016. Californians will vote on whether to uphold the recent ban on plastic shopping bags. Missouri voters might get to decide whether to limit the amount of money flowing to political candidates and committees. Ballot measures large and small let Americans directly affect the future of where they live.

How does it all end? In 1997, the tiny town of Castlewood, Virginia, used a ballot measure to vote itself out of existence, after which it was absorbed into the surrounding county.

Graphic reading "Elections 2016" (State Dept./J. Maruszewski)