The Populist and Progressive Era

The 1890s and early 1900s saw the establishment of the Populist and Progressive movements. Both were based on the people’s dissatisfaction with government and its inability to deal effectively in addressing the problems of the day. The supporters of both these movements had become especially outraged that moneyed special interest groups controlled government, and that the people had no ability to break this control. They soon began to propose a comprehensive platform of political reforms that included women’s suffrage, secret ballots, direct election of U.S. Senators, recall, primary elections, and the initiative process.

The cornerstone of their reform package was the establishment of the initiative process for they knew that without it many of the reforms they wanted – that were being blocked by state legislatures – would not be possible.

Their support for the process was based on a theory of trusting the individual and not as a method of destroying representative government – but to enhance it. They believed that our founding fathers at the federal and state levels had done a tremendous job in creating constitutions that established the criteria in which our daily lives should be governed. However, they knew that these constitutions were based on compromise and not documents that should be subject to permanent enshrinement. The founding fathers realized this as well and placed in every state constitution and the federal constitution a provision for its revision. The Populists/Progressives took advantage of these methods of amending state constitutions and began the arduous journey of pushing state legislators to add an amendment allowing for the initiative and popular referendum process.

Their efforts soon began to pay off. In 1897, Nebraska became the first state to allow cities to place initiative and referendum in their charters. One year later, the citizens of South Dakota, lead by Father Robert W. Haire, copied initiative and referendum provisions from the 1848 Swiss Constitution and successfully amended them into the South Dakota Constitution. On November 5, 1898, South Dakota became the first state to adopt the statewide initiative and popular referendum process. Utah followed in 1900 and Oregon voters approved their initiative and referendum amendment by an 11-to-1 margin in 1902 . Other states soon followed. In 1906 Montana voters approved an initiative and popular referendum amendment proposed by the state legislature. Oklahoma became the first state to provide for the initiative and popular referendum in its original constitution in 1907. Maine and Michigan passed initiative and popular referendum amendments in 1908.

In 1911 California placed initiative and popular referendum in their constitution. Other states were to follow – but even with popular support in many states, the elected class refused the will of the people and did not enact this popular reform. In Texas, for example, the people actually had the opportunity to vote for initiative and popular referendum in 1914, but voted it down because the amendment proposed by the legislature would have required that signatures be gathered from 20% of the registered voters in the state – a number twice as large as what was required in any other state. The proponents for initiative and popular referendum felt it was more important to get a useable process than one that would have maintained the status quo and provided no benefit to the citizenry.

According to David Schmidt, author of Citizen Lawmakers (the most comprehensive study on I&R available to date); “In states where I&R activists were unable to gain passage of statewide I&R amendments, they achieved numerous successes at the local level. In 1898, Alfred D. Cridge led a successful drive to incorporate I&R provisions into the city charter of San Francisco; John Randolph Haynes concluded a similar drive in Los Angeles in 1903; Grand Rapids, Michigan followed in 1905; Des Moines, Iowa in 1906; Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Wilmington, Delaware in 1907.” Eventually, between 1898 and 1918, 24 states and numerous cities had adopted initiative or popular referendum – mostly in the West.

The expansion of initiative and popular referendum in the West fit more with the Westerners belief of populism – that the people should rule the elected and not allow the elected to rule the people. Unfortunately in the East and South this was not the case. Those that were in power were opposed to the expansion of initiative and popular referendum because they were concerned that blacks and immigrants would use the process to enact reforms that were not consistent with the beliefs of the ruling class. This was exemplified by a 1911 article in the national I&R movement’s newsletter Equity in which it was reported that, “many conscientious Southerners oppose direct legislation (I&R) because they fear that this process of government would increase the power of the negro, and therefore increase the danger of negro domination.” As to the East Coast states, this racism was exemplified by Massachusetts political leaders who “fear[ed] initiatives [that] could be passed over their objections by Irish-Catholic voting blocs.”

By 1915, the push for establishing the initiative process began to wane due to “a developing conviction that German militarism might be a danger to the U.S.” which “was generating a crusade for pure, undiluted Americanism – and as usual, patriotism came to be identified with defense of the status quo rather than its alteration.” It took 40 years before another state would adopt the initiative process.

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