Connecticut Citizens For Ballot Initiative

History of Ballot Initiatives



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. 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. The former President James Madison stated in Federalist 49,


            As 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.”


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.


            “There is nothing more sacred to a free people than the right to govern themselves and

                take matters into their own hands when their elected officials have failed them. When

                the very government which the people have created to secure their liberty and domestic

                tranquility imposes restraints on their freedom, the people have a duty to try to break

                the shackles themselves.”

                                                -Ward Connerly, Chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition



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 of these movements had become especially outraged that moneyed special interest groups controlled government, and that the people had no ability to break this control. In particular, the mining, railroad, and banking industries tremendous insider influence led to this movement. 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. One 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 may 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.


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 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. 


In 1959, Alaska was allowed admittance into the Union with initiative and popular referendum in the 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.


            I most strongly urge, that the first step in our design to preserve and perpetuate popular

                government shall be the adoption of the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall.

                                                                -Hiram Johnson, Governor of the State of California




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

Website Builder