The Modern Day Movement

In 1959, Alaska was allowed admittance into the Union with initiative and popular referendum in their founding constitution. In 1968, Wyoming voters adopted the process and in 1972 Floridians adopted the statewide initiative process. Mississippians in 1992 restored the initiative process to their constitution, 70 years after the state supreme court had invalidated the election that had established it. Mississippi became the newest and last state to get this valuable tool.

The battle to expand the initiative process is still being waged. But a new front has been opened – the battle to keep the initiative process from being taken away in the states where it exists. However, the factor that causes hesitation among legislators to expand the process is the same reason being used by lawmakers to call for its extinction – how the process has been used.

Initiative Usage

There is little doubt that in recent years the initiative process has become one of the most important mechanisms for altering and influencing public policy at the local, state and even national level. In the last decade alone, utilizing the initiative process, citizens were heard on affirmative action, educational reform, term limits, tax reform, campaign finance reform, drug policy reform and the environment.

The modern day movement to utilize the initiative process can be said to have begun in 1978 in California with the passage of Proposition 13 that cut property taxes from 2.5 percent of market value to just 1 percent. After Proposition 13 passed in California, similar measures were adopted through the initiative process in Michigan and Massachusetts. Within two years, 43 states had implemented some form of property tax limitation or relief and 15 states lowered their income tax rates.

A report from the National Taxpayers Union makes the case that the tax revolt that began with Proposition 13 in the 1970s would never have occurred without the initiative process. The study’s author, Pete Sepp, stated: “[w]ith I&R, citizens have created an innovative, effective array of procedural restraints on the growth of state and local government that have even awakened the federal political establishment. Without I&R, citizens almost certainly would be laboring under a more oppressive and unaccountable fiscal regime than they do today…. As initiative and referendum enters its second century of use in the United States, citizens should embrace and nurture this invaluable process. It has transformed the ‘Tax Revolt’ from a passing fancy to a permanent fixture in American politics.”

The citizens, utilizing the initiative process have brought about some of the most fundamental and controversial public policy decisions affecting our daily lives.

Clearly, reforms have been enacted that represent different ideologies - conservative, liberal, libertarian and populist agendas. This typifies the initiative process – individuals of all different political persuasions use it. Furthermore, because of the diversity of issues that have been placed on the ballot, voters in states with an initiative on the ballot have been more likely to go to the polls than voters in states without an initiative on the ballot. In election after election, no matter what election cycle is analyzed, voter turnout in states with an initiative on the ballot has been usually 3% to 8% higher than in states without an initiative on the ballot. In 1998 voters in the 16 states with an initiative on the ballot went to the polls at a rate of almost 3% greater than voters in the states without an initiative on the ballot.This can be attributed to the fact the people believe that their vote can make a difference when voting on initiatives. They realize that when they vote for an initiative, they get what they voted for. They get term limits, tax limits, and educational or environmental reform. That is the key distinction between voting on an initiative and voting for a candidate. With a candidate there are no guarantees – you can only hope that the candidate delivers on his or her promises.

Since the first statewide initiative appeared on Oregon’s ballot in 1904, citizens in the 24 states with the initiative process have placed approximately 2,051 statewide initiatives on the ballot and have only adopted 841 (41%). Even though 24 states have the statewide initiative process, over 60% of all initiative activity has taken place in just six states – Arizona, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington. Additionally, it is important to point out that very few initiatives actually make it to the ballot. In California, according to political scientist Dave McCuan, only 26% of all initiatives filed have made it to the ballot and only 8% of those filed actually were adopted by the voters. During the 2000 election cycle, over 350 initiatives were filed in the 24 initiative states and 76 made the ballot – about 22%.

The initiative process has been through periods of tremendous use as well as periods in which it was rarely utilized. Initiative usage steadily declined from its peak of 293 from 1911-1920 to its low of 87 in 1961-1970. Many factors contributed to this, but the distraction of two World Wars, the Great Depression and the Korean War are largely responsible. However, in 1978, with the passage of California’s Proposition 13, the people began to realize the power of the initiative process once again and its use began to climb. Since 1978, two of the three most prolific decades of initiative use have occurred, 1981-90 (271 initiatives) and 1991- 2000 (389 initiatives).

In 1996, considered by scholars to be the “high water mark” for the use of the initiative process, the citizens placed 93 initiatives on statewide ballots and adopted 44 (47%). In contrast, that year, state legislators in those same 24 states adopted over 14,000 laws and resolutions.

Since 1996, the number of initiatives actually making the ballot is remaining constant if not falling. In 1998, only 61 statewide initiatives actually made the ballot - the lowest in a decade. In 2000 a total of 76 initiatives found their way to statewide ballots, though more than 1998, it is 17 less than appeared on the 1996 ballot and is consistent with the decade average of 73 initiatives per election cycle. These numbers do not support the accusation that there has been a “drastic” increase in initiative usage over the last decade.

In 2001 there were only four initiatives on statewide ballots. This number is actually two fewer than the number of initiatives that appeared on the 1991 general election ballot. The reason for the low number in odd numbered election years is that the constitutions of only five states allow initiatives in the odd years – Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio and Washington State.

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