History of direct democracy in the United States

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The history of direct democracy amongst non-Native Americans in the United States dates from the 1630s in the New England Colonies.[1] Many New England towns still carry on that tradition in the form of open town meetings.

19th Century[edit]

Ballot questions became an outlet for solving the difficult questions of the Mid-19th century, including temperance. Except for the states that passed total prohibition of alcohol every state created a version of the local option, which allowed citizens to vote on whether to allow the sale of alcohol in their area.[2]

Progressive Era[edit]

Beginning in 1878, the Progressive Era saw millions of American farmers began banding together to break the post-Civil War, small-farmer indebting crop-lien system with co-operative economics. They were opposed to the arguably corrupt and abusive practices of the national financial sector, and they attempted to improve their circumstances by forming the short-lived People's Party, a viable political party from 1892 to 1896, and engaging in populist politics. The party fused with the Democratic Party in the late 1890s, and entirely collapsed by 1909 to the two-party system.

Inspired by the efforts of millions of farmers, exposés written by investigative journalists (the famous muckrakers), and correlations between special interests' abuses of farmers and special interests' abuses of urban workers, Progressives formed nationally connected citizen organizations to extend this democracy movement. From 1898 to 1918, the Progressives, supported by tens of millions of citizens, forced direct democracy petition components into the constitutions of twenty-six states.

Populist and Labor Movements[edit]

William Simon U'Ren , a progressive leader largely responsible for the creation of the Oregon System.

The constitutional placement of direct democracy petition components was seen by those citizen majorities as necessary. Given the obvious corruption in state governments, the lack of sovereign public control over the output of state legislatures was seen as "the fundamental defect" in the nation's legislative machinery. Advocates insisted that the only way to make the founding fathers' vision work was to take the "misrepresentation" out of representative government with the sovereign people's direct legislation (Special Committee of the National Economic League, 1912). Third parties and national organizations started pressing the issue of direct democracy in the 1890s, and were typically closely tied to other progressive issues like women's suffrage, recall, free silver, the labor movement, and direct election of senators. Labor organizations like the Knights of Labor started using frequent referendums to decide policy at the national level, and several unions like the General Master Workmen voted to support this model of direct legislation in politics.[3] The most notable political party to take up direct legislation was the People's Party, commonly called the populists. The Populists put direct legislation in their in 1896 platform,[4] and they would later that year win 5 Senate seats and 22 House of Representative seats.

Nebraska adopted the referendum for municipal governments within its boundaries in 1897. South Dakota was the first state to adopt the referendum, in 1898, patterning its system after that of Switzerland. The adoption of the initiative and referendum in Oregon in 1902 was widely copied and put in the constitutions of western states, and the system was popularly referred to as the "Oregon system". A leading advocate of direct democracy was William S. U'Ren, who pressed the issue within the Oregon branch of the Populist Party and the Direct Legislation League.[5] However, it was not all successful. Most notably, residents of Texas rejected the referendum because the version put on the ballot by the legislature required 20% of the vote. Other states where the constitutional amendments to place direct democracy failed include Mississippi, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. By 1918 enthusiasm waned, and there would be a lull in the expansion of direct democracy for the next 50 years. Florida would adopt the right to the ballot initiative under a new state constitution in 1968, to be applied to constitutional amendments, and Mississippi would adopt a restricted form of initiative process in 1992.

Initiative and referendum (I&R) citizen lawmaking spread across the United States because state legislatures were unresponsive in creating laws that the people needed to protect themselves from lobby groups, laissez-faire economics, and the era's robber barons. Additionally, while legislatures were quick to pass laws benefitting special interests, both legislatures and the courts were inflexible in their refusals to amend, repeal or adjudicate those laws in ways that would eliminate special interest advantages and end abuses of the majority.

Initiative examples[edit]

There are many examples of Initiatives and referendums in the United States, for instance:


On June 6, 1978, Proposition 13 (a ballot initiative) was enacted by the voters of the State of California. Its passage resulted in a cap on property tax rates in the state, reducing them by an average of 57%. Proposition 13 received an enormous amount of publicity, not only in California, but throughout the United States. Its passage presaged a "taxpayer revolt" throughout the country.

Proposition 13 was officially titled the "People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation." It passed with 65% of voters in favor and 35% against, with 70% of registered voters participating. It was placed on the ballot through the California initiative (or referendum) process under which a proposed law or constitutional amendment, termed a "proposition," is placed on the ballot once its backers gather a sufficient number of signatures on a petition. When passed, Proposition 13 became article 13A of the California state constitution.


Massachusetts passed a similar law, within the initiative petition process in the state, called Proposition 2½, in 1980, which added a reduction to the auto excise tax rate within Massachusetts, to the idea of the California Proposition 13's type of property tax provision, limiting both levels of taxation to $25.00 per $1,000 of valuation, of the property or vehicle on which such a tax is levied in Massachusetts.


In 1990, the civil society of Nevada—an I&R state—resolved to minimize the intense controversy raging around abortion. The Nevada legislature was under pressure from anti-abortion organizations to change the state's abortion law. The state's pro-choice organizations wanted the standing law, which conformed to Roe v. Wade, to be left as it was. The pro-choice organizations made use of a seldom-used feature in Nevada's I&R law. They petitioned for and passed a referendum on an existing state law. It was only the fifth time, since Nevada had gained citizen lawmaking in 1912, that the referendum on an existing state law had been used (Erickson, Questions On The Ballot). Because of the constitutional provisions defining this particular referendum, approval of the state law meant that the legislature is barred from ever amending the law. Only the people can amend such a law in what is called the "see us first" referendum provision.

This initiative process functioned as the safety valve it was designed to be. With an approving majority of over sixty percent, Nevada voters gave a degree of legitimacy to the standing law that no small number of legislators could ever invoke in such a visceral controversy. With the legislature legally taken out of the picture, and the referendum's large legitimacy recognized by both sides, the controversy quickly quieted. The legislature is free to refer proposed statutes or constitutional amendments relating to abortion to the people, but the people are now the decision-makers in this issue.


Citizens in Nebraska, after gaining the constitutional amendment initiative in 1912, used it to reduce their bicameral legislature of 133 members to a unicameral legislature of 43 members in 1934. Effective with the Nebraska legislature's first nonpartisan, unicameral session in 1937, it reduced cost, waste, secrecy and time (no conference committee required), while at the same time making the legislature more efficient and more cooperative with the press and civil society.[citation needed] The success of combining direct democracy governance components with a unicameral legislature has stood the test of time (Nebraska Legislature Online, 2004, The History of Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature).

General components[edit]

Direct democracy governance components have contributed significantly to state-level policy and law. Schmidt (1989), Zimmermann (December 1999) and others contend that these contributions have been much more successful than most of direct democracy's critics admit.

From a non-legalistic perspective, the Industrial Workers of the World pioneered the archetypal workplace democracy model, the Wobbly Shop, in which the self-managing norms of grassroots democracy were applied.


Over 60% of initiative activity has occurred in Arizona, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington.[citation needed] These states generally have lesser signature requirements than other states.

In many states, signature gathering has become a niche industry in the role of politics. Proponents of initiatives, referendums, or recalls now pay individuals to collect signatures. This is required because of the sheer number of signatures required in order to qualify a measure on the ballot. The signature gatherers are usually paid by the signature and often independent contractors, which makes them not subject to minimum wage laws. To combat the growing presence of signature gatherers, some states have passed bans on paying signature gatherers by the signature, and Oregon most notably declared signature gatherers employees and enforced labor laws on the petition proponents.

Direct democracy can sometimes be used to subvert the normal checks and balances of a government. For instance, a governor of a state may threaten to use an initiative to "go over the heads" of an uncooperative legislature. Similarly, a state legislator can collect signatures and place on the ballot a measure that overrules a governor's veto. Because it usually takes a two-thirds majority to overrule a governor's veto, but only a simple majority to pass an initiative, this tactic can sometimes be successful. However, proponents of direct democracy argue that the public acts as an additional check to their elected representatives' power in these cases, not a subversion.

More recently, corporations have used the initiative and referendum to force citizen votes on decisions they do not agree with. General Growth Properties collected signatures for a referendum in Glendale, California to stop development of a competing mall next door, developed by competitor Caruso Affiliated, in addition to standard political techniques such as lobbying and filing lawsuits challenging the project's environmental impact report. Ultimately, GGP was unsuccessful at making their case to the voters, and the competing mall was built. Wal-Mart has also used initiatives to bypass planning commissions and city councils to build Wal-Mart Supercenters. Recently, in Inglewood, California, they qualified a ballot measure that described in detail the plans for a Supercenter to be built in the community. Critics decried "ballot box planning" and the inflexibility of the initiative process, which forbid local government from making any changes to the plans once they were approved by the voters. Ultimately, the initiative was defeated.[6]

Citizen-written initiatives, like legislative laws, are occasionally subject to unintended consequences. For example, California's "Three Strikes" proposition, intended for violent felons, has sent a number of persons to prison for life for included offenses as small as stealing pizza. However, proponents of Three Strikes argued that such consequences were akin to a "lifetime achievement award", since a potential third striker would have to have committed two violent and serious felonies beforehand. There have been attempts to change the law, most recently Proposition 66,[7] which failed to pass after several loopholes were exploited by opponents of Three Strikes restructuring.

See also[edit]


  • Cronin, Thomas E. (1989). Direct Democracy: The Politics Of Initiative, Referendum, And Recall. Harvard University Press. Despite the author's bias against direct democracy, the book is a good read for the issues, personalities, and organizations in the Progressive period of the Reform Era.
  • Erickson, Robert. Political History Of Nevada — Questions On The Ballot.
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence (1976). Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment In America. Oxford University Press.
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence (1978). The Populist Moment: A Short History Of The Agrarian Revolt In America — Abridged version of Professor Goodwyn's 1976 book. Oxford University Press.
  • Magleby, David B. (1984). Direct Legislation: Voting On Ballot Propositions In The United States. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Miller, Joshua I. (1991) The Rise And Fall Of Democracy In Early America, 1630--1789: The Legacy For Contemporary Politics Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Natelson, Robert G. (1999), Are Initiatives And Referenda Contrary To The Constitution's "Republican Form Of Government"?
  • Nebraska Legislature Online (2004). The History of Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature.
  • Schmidt, David D. (1989). Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution. Temple University Press.
  • Waters, M. Dane (2001). The Battle Over Citizen Lawmaking. Carolina Academic Press.
  • Willard, Joseph (1858). Willard Memoir; or Life And Times Of Major Simon Willard. Phillips, Sampson, And Company (Boston). Simon Willard was a co-founder of Concord, Massachusetts, in 1635. From the town's first winter, 1635–1636, its representative government used referendums to decide political issues.
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (March 1999). The New England Town Meeting: Democracy In Action. Praeger Publishers.
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (December 1999). The Initiative: Citizen Law-Making. Praeger Publishers.


  1. ^ Joseph Francis Zimmerman (1999). The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action. ISBN 9780275965235. Retrieved 2010-11-02. The only other currently assembled voters' law-making body is the Swiss Landsgemeinde in the half-cantons of Appenzell Inner-Rhoden and Out-Rhoden, Nidwalden, Obwalden, and the canton of Glarus, where the traditional annual open-air meeting of voters is held to decide issues.
  2. ^ Nicholson, S. E. (1908). "The Local-Option Movement". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 32 (3): 1–5. doi:10.1177/000271620803200301. ISSN 0002-7162. JSTOR 1010546. S2CID 143949590.
  3. ^ Sullivan, James William (1892). Direct Legislation by the Citizenship Through the Initiative and Referendum. Twnetieth Century Publishing Company.
  4. ^ "Digital History". www.digitalhistory.uh.edu. Retrieved 2020-06-27.
  5. ^ "State of Oregon: Blue Book - Initiative, Referendum and Recall Introduction". sos.oregon.gov. Retrieved 2020-06-27.
  6. ^ "Wal-Mart's strategies unwelcome in cities". www2.ljworld.com. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  7. ^ List of California ballot propositions 2000-present

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