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Seizing the Initiative

A photograph shows an example of a ballot form for a state election in Massachusettes.
Source: liz west under Creative Commons license.

On April 3, Wisconsin voters will decide the future of the office of state treasurer as part of a special referendum. This type of direct democracy usually receives less attention than candidates for office, but it often has a more direct effect on voters’ lives.

Lost in the din of the raucous 2016 presidential contest, for example, was another important democratic event: 2016 was the year of the ballot initiative. A total of 71 initiatives, the most of any year in the past decade, made it onto U.S. ballots. The mark was set in a political era already known for intense use of ballot initiatives; since 1990, Americans have placed 969 initiatives on the ballot, 150 more than in the previous five decades combined.

Why are citizens turning to ballot initiatives more often in the twenty-first century? Since the inception of direct democracy in the late nineteenth century, the use of ballot initiatives has spiked several times. Each instance provides clues as to what drives the intermittent embrace of this powerful political tool. What, if anything, can these cases tell us about the future of the initiative and the future of American democracy more generally?

Origins of Direct Democracy in the United States

So-called direct or pure democracy—government by a majority vote—dates as far back as ancient Greece, and in the United States it has precedent in the town hall meetings of seventeenth-century Massachusetts.[1] Despite their familiarity with both the ancient Greeks and the town hall, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and other founders of the United States believed that true democracy tended to produce political instability. They eventually opted for indirect democracy in the form of a constitutional republic

In the United States, the modern initiative process was conceived as part of the Progressive movement’s opposition to rampant political corruption in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1894, journalist and labor leader J.W. Sullivan began printing Direct Legislation Record, a newsletter that promoted direct democracy for its Progressive readers. In an 1896 edition of the Record, direct democracy advocate Eltweed Pomeroy railed against the plutocracy that had left U.S. cities so corrupt. He recommended that the model of the New England town meeting—“the most democratic system of government that can possibly be devised”—be “applied to cities, states, and the nation by the initiative and the referendum.”[2]

By “the initiative,” Pomeroy meant the ballot initiative, in which citizens draft legislation, gather signatures in support of it, and put it to a popular vote. The initiative process is one of three pillars of direct democracy to have come out of this era—the other two being the referendum, in which the public votes on a law authored by the legislature, and the recall, in which citizens decide whether to remove an elected official from office.

Today, these three processes vary from state to state, but they generally serve the common purpose of giving the citizenry more of a say in lawmaking. Twenty-two states plus the District of Columbia allow both ballot initiatives and referenda, and three additional states allow for referenda only.

Use of the Initiative, 1900–present

In the late nineteenth century, appeals to direct democracy found fertile ground in the Populist movements of the Midwest and West, which coalesced around the grievances of farmers and industrial workers. South Dakota became the first state to approve an initiative process in 1898, followed by Utah in 1900. Oregonians and Illinoisans both approved initiative processes in 1902, but the Illinois measure was not binding, and the legislature ultimately ignored the vote. Oregon became the first state to vote on a ballot initiative in 1904. By 1918, twenty-two states had approved initiative processes.[3]

Not every initiative put forward during this era was authored or endorsed by Progressives. For instance, mining interests and public utilities pushed initiatives in Colorado.[4] But measures that gave women the vote, reduced corporate power, abolished poll taxes, restricted the sale of liquor, funded public infrastructure, and ended child labor were typical of the first wave of initiatives. As political scholar Thomas E. Cronin wrote, our modern system of direct democracy “was born in an era of real grievances.”[5]

Predictably, legislatures and other critics of direct democracy pushed back, arguing that, among other consequences, letting citizens draft and vote on their own laws would usurp representative government. But reformist historian Charles A. Beard, one of the initiative’s most prominent backers in the early twentieth century, argued that such fears were overblown. Direct democracy was not a replacement for representative government, Beard wrote, but was instead part of the long American tradition of balancing power.

Similarly, Delos F. Wilcox, an expert on municipal government, wrote in 1912 that “it is the right of the electors to start things and make them go,” and although the people could use the initiative to “abolish constitutions and charters . . .  there is no reason to expect this result as a necessary consequence.”[6]

Though they wrote at the height of the Progressive era, history has proven Beard and Wilcox’s perspective correct; direct democracy has never threatened to replace lawmaking by elected representatives. More recent advocates for the initiative, such as the 1970s activist David D. Schmidt, echoed Beard’s sentiments, claiming that initiatives made politicians more responsive to the electorate.[7]

Since the first flurry of initiatives in the Progressive era, U.S. citizens have voted on ballot measures addressing a wide range of public policy concerns, from the use of fishing nets to dentist licensing. The variety of issues tackled by initiatives is immense, but taxes, vice, and the expansion or contraction of civil rights rank among the most common. The timing of historic spikes in the use of initiatives are also instructive. Cronin explains that initiatives have been used most frequently in periods marked by “growing distrust of legislative bodies, and . . .  a growing suspicion that privileged interests exert far greater influences on the typical politician than does the common voter.”[8]

The use of ballot initiatives has often peaked during or after economic downturns.[9] In the midst of the Great Depression in 1934, for example, California voters approved fourteen initiatives, among them measures that provided $24 million for unemployment relief and established a state civil service. Similarly, Californians desperate for tax relief in the aftermath of “stagflation” during the late 1970s approved Proposition 13, a measure that slashed the state property tax by at least half.[10] But like many ballot initiatives, Prop 13 came with unintended consequences, as this tax reduction contributed to a sharp decline in California’s school funding.

Ballot initiatives have also been deployed to reverse Civil Rights advances. In the 1990s, Californians—among the most frequent users of direct democracy—approved a set of initiatives that rolled back school integration, deprived illegal immigrants of public services, placed restrictions on bilingual education, and repealed affirmative action.  During this period, Washington State, Arizona, and Michigan passed similar initiatives.[11]  These campaigns tapped into deep-seated resentment among the states’ majority-white electorates to push back against the legislatures’ embrace of Civil Rights, as historian Daniel Martinez HoSang writes.[12]

Indeed, “initiatives that restrict the civil rights of minorities” have been observed to “pass 78 percent of the time, in comparison to the 33 percent success rate of all other initiatives.”[13] Colorado’s Amendment 2, which passed in 1992, barred the state from enacting anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people. This amendment provoked widespread boycotts before the Supreme Court struck it down in 1996.

The Present and Future of Direct Democracy

Recent commentators contend that modern initiative campaigns are vulnerable to the same monied interests and hollow populist rhetoric that now wield tremendous influence over legislative politics.[14] Large corporations and wealthy industries typically pour millions of dollars into campaigns for or against initiatives, to protect industry profits. In 2016, pharmaceutical companies spent large sums to oppose measures to reduce prescription drug prices in California and to establish a single-payer health system in Colorado. Both initiatives failed.

Some initiative campaigns bend populist rhetoric toward private goals, a deceptive tactic that is nonetheless effective. In 2016, Colorado citizens passed Amendment 71, which made it harder to get initiatives on the ballot.  Amendment 71 was conceived and promoted primarily by special interests. Former politicians allied with the oil and gas industry drafted the amendment, and corporations made large donations to the “Yes on 71” campaign. The amendment represented a blatant attempt to protect the industry from environmentalist and other citizen activism. Yet, campaign rhetoric urged voters to “protect our constitution” from “special interests.” The rhetoric worked; Amendment 71, a special-interest measure disguised as a measure against special interests, won 56 percent of the vote.

History reveals that direct democracy has done some public good, but the initiative process has many systemic flaws.  Ballot initiatives, such as California’s Prop 13, sometimes have unintended, detrimental consequences. They are also often co-opted to suppress civil rights and to promote monied interests, even as these less-than-democratic aims are cloaked in appealing populist rhetoric. These flaws lend credence to some of direct democracy’s biggest critics, including historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s and political scientist Richard J. Ellis in the 2000s. Both argue that direct democracy relies on a public that is too emotional or too uninformed to make sound policy decisions.[15]

Recent trends in the use of the ballot initiative suggest that, as opposed to the era in which they were born, today’s campaigns are generally not the work of a coalition of public-minded citizens seeking to make government more responsive. It is true that Americans’ faith in their elected officials and political institutions has plummeted in recent years, and that the Great Recession continues to have political ramifications nearly a decade later. But neither widespread distrust of government nor economic woes sufficiently explain the current embrace of the ballot initiative. The recent surge of money into U.S. politics, which has helped produce so much skepticism of government, has also played a major role.

In today’s fractured initiative landscape, an array of interests—some narrow, some broad—continually re-define “the people” and the people’s enemies in hope of winning the widest possible support. As observers like HoSang point out, the rhetoric of ballot campaigns is extremely malleable. This is perhaps both the initiative’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.[16]

The Historian’s Task

What are historians to make of all this? If anything, the current embrace of direct democracy cries out for deeper historical analysis. Movements for direct democracy don’t just coincide with times of economic peril or distrust of government; they also follow broader contours in the history of American democracy, most prominently the lopsided tug-of-wars between capital and labor, civil rights and oppression, populism and party politics, and representative government and democracy. New histories of direct democracy should strive to place it within these larger debates and contexts.

The Citizen’s Task

The United States today closely resembles the Gilded Age, an age in which vast economic production coincided with neglected infrastructure, political corruption, and an enormous wealth and opportunity gap. The Progressive movement and direct democracy emerged to counter those negative trends. Perhaps it is time for today’s citizen initiatives to become more public-minded, in the spirit of the Progressive era, so that we might begin to remedy some of the same problems that plagued the nation more than 100 years ago.

It may be that the prevalence of ballot initiatives in 2016 marks the beginning of another massive movement for direct democracy. The open question is whether the initiatives put forward in the future will reflect a coalition of like-minded citizens addressing “real” grievances—as they did in the early twentieth century—or whether they will represent a smattering of special interests manufacturing popular support.

Nick Johnson holds a master’s degree in American history from Colorado State University and is associate editor of the Colorado Encyclopedia. He is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017).

[1] Thomas E. Cronin, Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 12.

[2] Eltweed Pomeroy, “The Problem of the Cities,” Direct Legislation Record 3, no. 1 (January 1896), 2-5.

[3] David D. Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1972), 17.

[4] Daniel A. Smith and Joseph Lubinski, “Direct Democracy During the Progressive Era: A Crack in the Populist Veneer?” Journal of Policy History 14, no. 4 (2002), 352.

[5] Cronin, Direct Democracy, 6.

[6] Delos F. Wilcox, Government By All the People: The Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall as Instruments of Democracy (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972. Reprint: New York: Macmillan, 1912), 15, 23.

[7] Charles A. Beard and Birl E. Shulz, Documents on the State-wide Initiative, Referendum, and Recall (New York: MacMillan Co., 1912), 22-23; Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers, 25-26.

[8] Cronin, Direct Democracy, 10.

[9] For a brief overview of historic ballot initiative use, see Cody Hoesly, “Reforming Direct Democracy: Lessons from Oregon,” California Law Review 93, no. 4 (July 2005), 1192-1196; a number of initiatives during the 1930s provided for employment relief and state civil service programs; for definition of “stagflation” see Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010), 221-222.

[10] Cronin, Direct Democracy, ix.

[11] Joshua J. Dyck, “Racial Threat, Direct Legislation, and Social Trust: Taking Tyranny Seriously in Studies of the Ballot Initiative,” Political Research Quarterly 65, no. 3 (September 2012), 616.

[12] Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 10-12.

[13] Sameir Junejo, “Majority Rule: How the Ballot Initiative Process Hurts Minorities,” Seattle Journal of Social Justice 14, no. 3 (Spring 2016), 875-76.

[14] Howard R. Ernst, “The Historical Role of Narrow-Material Interests in Initiative Politics,” and Sue Tupper, “Challenging Initiatives: More than Just Special-Interest Money, an Issue of Political Stability,” in Larry Sabato, Howard R. Ernst, and Bruce A. Larson, eds., Dangerous Democracy?: The Battle Over Ballot Initiatives in America (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 1-29; David S. Broder, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money (New York: Harcourt, 2000), 4-5.

[15] Cronin, Direct Democracy, 61-62; Richard J. Ellis, Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 12.

[16] HoSang, Racial Propositions, 11.