Setting the Foundation

Initiative and referendum (I&R) has existed in some form in this country since the 1600s. Citizens of New England placed ordinances and other issues on the agenda for discussion and then a vote during town meetings. It is these town hall meetings that established the precedent for the legislative referendum process, whereby citizens are entrusted with ratifying laws and amendments proposed by elected officials.

Thomas Jefferson was the first of our founding fathers to propose legislative referendum when he advocated for its addition in the 1775 Virginia state constitution. His attendence at the Continental Congress, however, meant that it eventually was left out of the final version.

Jefferson’s strong support for referendum came from his belief that government power derives from citizens, and they should have the final say on whether changes to constitutions or other laws under which they must live are legitimate. As James Madison stated in Federalist 49,

[a]s the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory to recur to the same original authority… whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or newmodel the powers of government.

In 1776, Georgia delegates gathered in Savannah to draft a new constitution. The delegates proposed that their new constitution only could be amended when petitions signed by a majority of voters in each county called for a convention. While this call was ultimately deleted from the constitution, Georgia was the first state to put forward a process that recognized the sovereignty of the people in controlling their constitution.

In 1778, Massachusetts became the first state to hold a statewide legislative referendum for its citizens to ratify its constitution. New Hampshire followed in 1792, then Connecticut in 1818, Maine in 1819, New York 1820 and Rhode Island in 1824. The U.S. Congress subsequently made legislative referendum for constitutional changes mandatory for all new states entering the union after 1857. Today, all 50 states have a legislative referendum process.

By the late 1800s, however, people began to realize that legislative referendum failed to give citizens the ability to proactively reign in governments that had become unresponsive. It was this shortcoming that soon led to a push for a more direct check on representative government.

Adapted from the Initiative & Referendum Almanac by M. Dane Waters.