The History of the Initiative

Initiative and referendum has been part of our country since before the founding. Our founding fathers thought that the citizens’ right to petition their government was crucial to maintaining our liberty. Thomas Jefferson argued to have I&R included in the Virginia constitution in 1775. James Madison included a push for I&R in Federalist 49 when he stated:

“[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.”

The Progressive and Populist movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s were integral in implementing a number of important reforms that we now take as commonplace. Direct election of U.S. Senators, women’s suffrage, secret ballots, recall and primary elections were all goals of the Progressives and Populists. All good things and all things that couldn’t get passed in legislatures overrun with big moneyed special interests. These reformers recognized that going through the legislatures would not be a viable option in passing their goals. So they turned to the people. Through the initiative process these issues became law.

Initiative and referendum spread like wildfire, starting in 1898 when South Dakota became the first state to pass a statewide initiative and referendum process. Over the next 20 years 23 other states and numerous cities adopted some kind of initiative and referendum process.

There have been and continue to be attempts in other states to adopt I&R. In recent history Alaska, Wyoming, Florida and Mississippi have adopted the process.

One reason that state legislatures are reluctant to give people a vote on whether to adopt I&R and why some state legislatures seek to limit I&R usage through statute is why I&R has been used. The increase in I&R usage can be traced back to Proposition 13 in California in 1978. This issue is still debated today. Supporters of Prop 13 argue that prior to its passage people were literally being taxed out of their homes. Opponents say that by limiting property taxes California school have been irreparably crippled. Issues have passed through the initiative process on all ideological sides. People have voted to reduce their taxes and people have voted to increase their taxes. It is impossible to say that I&R favors any ideology. Depending on the state and the individual legislator the way I&R has been used can be either encouraging or terrifying.