Let the People Speak: Rethinking the Initiative Process

Let the People Speak: Rethinking the Initiative Process

Let the people speak! Words enshrined in American political life since we were but a collection of colonies and the issues of the day were aired and decided at the Town Hall Meetings that defined the political culture of the time. And speak they did, whether in the late-seventeenth-century Salem witch hunts inspired by Puritan theology or in 1773, when the Boston Tea Party signaled the popular discontent with British rule that led to the American Revolution.

From its beginning, the impulse behind the initiative movement—whereby citizen-led proposals for legislation and/or constitutional amendments are put on the ballot for voter approval—was to create a way for ordinary citizens to gain the political power necessary to counteract the increasing dominance of big business and its government supporters. But it wasn’t until 1898 in South Dakota that, in response to popular unrest, voters had the opportunity to test that power and passed the first statewide popular initiative in the nation—an amendment to the state’s Constitution that, by a vote of 23,816 to 16,483, codified the initiative process into law.

Not surprisingly, the movement took hold in the West, where new or relatively young states had not yet developed the strong, well-entrenched political parties and their urban machines that blocked such reform in the East and South. Oregon passed its first initiative in 1904, and California voters enshrined the process in the state’s Constitution in 1911. Although today twenty-four states and the District of Columbia allow popular initiatives, six states—Oregon, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Arizona, and Washington—account for 60 percent of ballot initiatives nationwide, with Oregon and California in a close contest for first place.

Given the diversity in the nation, it’s no surprise that initiatives have served different groups and ideologies. Whether conservative or liberal, populist or statist—all have turned to initiatives to make their voices heard, and, increasingly, the “people” have spoken on a range of political and social issues: tax reform, term limits, state budgets, affirmative action, education reform, gambling, sentencing laws, prison reform, same-sex marriage, immigration, abortion, drug policy, the environment, and much more. And depending upon our point of view, we either celebrate the outcome or mourn it.

The rules for getting an initiative before the voters vary by state and locality. For some, the process is direct: a citizen-initiated proposition need only gather enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot. For others, there’s a step in between: the proposed initiative must be submitted for legislative review, during which the legislature can either adopt it or place it before the voters, with or without modification.

It’s the same for amending a state’s constitution: some make it easier, some harder. In my home state of California, where fiscal issue...

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