Historic Summary

Initiatives and Referendums (I & R) got people’s attention in 1978, when voters approved Prop 13 to limit property taxes after the Legislature failed to act. But the idea of direct democracy, where citizens vote on public questions rather than through elected representatives, has a rich history dating back to the city-states of Athens. The Framers of the Constitution were wary of direct democracy, however, fearing the voice of the majority would drown out the minority.

In the 19th century, I & R citizen-lawmaking spread because state legislatures were unresponsive in protecting citizens from powerful interests. South Dakota was the first state to adopt the I & R in 1898. In California, the emergence of direct democracy in 1911 is tied to the progressive movement and citizens’ response to the corruption in state government influenced by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

At the time, the intent of California’s direct democracy was not meant to serve as a primary tool of legislation, but rather to keep elected officials in line with public sentiment. It was rarely used from 1912-1969, averaging 2.5 qualified initiatives per year.

It was thought the indirect initiative, a measure proposed by the people to the legislature for action, would be the most used method. In effect from 1912, it was dropped for lack of use as part of the Constitution Revision Act in 1966. Concurrently, restrictions were eased on signature gathering along with other refinements to the basic law.

The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 changed the political landscape, and gave rise to a full-fledged, lucrative industry, where spending on initiative campaigns has risen by 750 percent in the last 34 years. Special interests have found that pursuing the initiative process, rather than lobbying, is the most effective way to influence public policy.

See the previous posts on the Initiative & Referendum Study:

An Initiative and Referendum Primer

LWVC Current Position on I&R

LWVSF thanks LWV North County San Diego for this post.

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