Western Initiative Phenomena SJRES67

Raising the nation’s public policy IQ…Adding the National Initiative to Democracy’s Toolbox.

(From the Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 28, June 1975)





California State University, Chico

(Various excerpted pages from pages 208 – 227)

Page                                    208  (Excerpted pages)

 Source: Voter Initiative Constitutional Amendment

Hearings before the Subcommittee on the Constitution

Of the

Committee on the Judiciary

United States Senate

95th Congress

First Session on

S.J. RES 67

December 13 & 14, 1977

 AT THE beginning of the twentieth century the United States was swept  by the Progressive Reform Movement. As historian Leland Baldwin describes it, “No city or state was without itswould-be reformers— sometimes practical idealists, sometimes disgruntled politicians or business elements seeking to overthrow the old regime, sometimes aspiring young men ready to seize any entree to power and pelf.”1 And, unlike the earlier Populist Movement which had been largely western, southern, and rural in orientation, the Progressive Reform Movement was more national in scope and to a varying extent middle-class in mentality. 2 However, clearly, the Progressive Movement had its greatest influence and longest lasting impact far from the population centers of the East in the agrarian, formerly Populist sections of the interior, southern and particularly, western portions of the United States. In these areas Progressives worked hard for and achieved a host of political and social reforms.

The Progressives were preoccupied with one central political problem:  the rampant corruption of the political system. Major targets of the Progres­sives tended to be thepoliticians, political parties, interest groups and political institutions of the country. To secure their political goals the Progressives advocated a wide range of political reformsincluding the direct primary, Australian (secret) ballot, presidential preference primary, prohibition against political parties’ making endorsements in primaries, cross-filing (candidates of one party allowed to run in the other’s primary—”vote for the man, not the party”), nonpartisan local and state elections, women’s suffrage, civil service ex-

Note: The author would like to thank Bob Ross a colleague in the Department of Political Science, for his invaluable assistance and help with the statistical portions of this paper.

1Leland D. Baldwin, The Stream of Americas History7 (New York: American Book Co.,

1952),  p. 381.


2 ‘Moat standard American history books and political science texts refer to the middle-clue mood of the Progressive movement. See, for example, Richard Hoftstadter, TIE. Ag. of Reform (New York: Knopf, 1955), or George E. Mowrey, TA. California Progressive:  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), or George S. Blair, American Legislatures: Structures and Process (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 392. However, this view has been challenged in several recant studies. Michael P. Rogin and John T. Shover contend that the Progressive movement in California was middle class only through 1910. Prom 1911 on, middle-class voters deserted the Progressive banner, while working-class voters and new immigrants joined the movement. See Michael P. Rogin and John T. Shover, Political Change. in California: Critical Elections end Social Movements 1890—1966 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Cc., 1970), pp. 33-61. Also, Roger E. Wyman, “Middle Class Voters and Progressive Reform: The Conflict of Class and Culture,” American Political Scene. Review, 68 (June 1974), 488.504,   argues that in Wisconsin Progressive support tended to come from the poor, rural portions of the state and that nationwide the Progressive movement support was constantly shifting into new voting coalitions.


tension, popular election of senators, short ballot, corrupt practices acts, publicity for campaign expenses, the recall, referendum and the initiative. The basic strategy of the Progressives was to check and control established political institutions by placing ultimate power in the hands of the people.3

In his description of these latter two reform devices, the initiative and referendum, political scientist George S. Blair states:

Simply defined, the initiative is a device whereby a prescribed number or percent of the qualified voters, through the use of a petition, may have an amendment or legislative proposal placed on the ballot for adoption or rejection by the electorate of the state or local community. The refer­endum, on the other hand, is a means by which decisions of legislative bodies do not become public policies until the electorate votes its con­currence with the policies and accepts them by the required affirmative vote. Thus, the initiative may be described as a device to correct legisla­tive sins of omission and the referendum as a means for correcting the sins of commission.4

By using the petition process voters could qualify initiatives and referenda for the ballot, thus effectively short-circuiting or bypassing the traditional political channels of legislature and governor’s veto (and from the Progressive perspec­tive, the sometimes unscrupulous politicians occupying those positions).

While political scientists during the first decades after the adoption of these devices conducted research on the initiative and referendum and how they were functioning, gradually, over the years, interest has waned within the academic community. Overall, what has been written lately has been generally negative, i.e., initiatives have become the tool of the special interests and voters are easily misled by the moneyed side in these contests. With the exception of a very few recent articles, political scientists, for the most part, have paid scant attention over the last ten years to the subject of direct legislation. As Howard D. Hamilton notes:

Any middle-aged member of the political science guild in a retrospective mood might ponder a question: “Whatever happened to direct demo­cracy?” In our halcyon student days the textbooks discussed the direct democracy trinity—initiative, referendum, and recall—described their mechanics and variations, explained their origins in the Progressive Era, told us that the United States, Australia, and Switzerland were lead­ing practitioners of direct democracy, cited a few eccentric referenda, gave the standard pro and con arguments, and essayed some judgments of the relative merits of direct andrepresentative democracy. Latter day

3One can trace to the contemporary setting many of the early themes emphasized by the

Progressives. For example, recent public opinion polls suggest (particularly in the post-Watergate atmosphere) that the public is increasingly rejecting the two established political parties, that they are becoming convinced of the immorality and crookedness of many public officials, and that they favor new reforms in the political system. A number of new public interest lobbies such as John Gardner’s, Common Cause, Ralph Nader’s Citizen Taskforce, and in California, The People’s Lobby, have emerged over the last several years; and clearly, the style and philosophy of these organizations coin­cides with the earlier aims of the Progressives decades ago — limiting and controlling the power of politicians and special interestsby giving the public a final check.

‘Blair, op. cit., p. 306.


collegians may pass through the portals innocent of the existence of the institutions of direct government. Half of the American government texts never mention the subject; the others allocate a paragraph or page for a casual mention or barebones explanation of the mechanics.’

Yet, as Hamilton notes, initiative measures arc not trivial or routine but are often of critical importance.

Initiative Use

This study focuses on the currently, at least academically speaking, un­fashionable topic of direct democracy, and in particular, on the initiative. The major purpose of this paper is to assess how this unique experiment in direct democracy has been working recently (over the last ten years, 1962-72). In ex­ploring this topic several questions will be considered: What states allow for the initiative option? How extensively is it employed? Why in particular states? What factors relate to initiative use? And lastly, what are the conse­quences of initiative use? Before proceeding with our discussion of the initiative, however, a few comments about its alter ego, the referendum, arc in order.

The petition or protest referendum is, in effect, the reverse side of the initiative; that is, voters using the petition process can subject legislative acts to a popular vote. If approved by the voters, the referendum can nullify legislative acts. Most states providing for the initiative also provide for the petition referendum. However, the pattern in states having the referendum seems clear-cut; it has fallen into disuse.6 For example, in California, no referendum has qualified for the ballot since 1942! The last significant attempt to qualify a referendum for the California ballot occurred in 1966 when the California Real Estate Association attempted to rescind the Rumford Fair Housing Bill. After failing to qualify their referendum in the specified time period, the C.R.E.A. began an initiative effort which eventually did qualify for the ballot?7

Two major factors seem to work against referendum use: (1) the problem of obtaining the specified number of signatures in the abbreviated time period allotted before the act in question goes into effect (initiatives arc not under quite as tight time constraints), and (2) legislators usually avoid passing any bill on which a substantial portion of the state’s population is in vehement op­position. Because the referendum is used so rarely in the various states provid­ing for this technique, the initiative shall be the main focus of this article.

Howard D. Hamilton, “Direct Legislation: Some Implications of Open Housing Referenda,”  America Political Science Review, 64 (March 1970), 124-37.

6Indeed, the word “disuse” may be a misnomer in describing the situation in many states. For example, New Mexico, a state providing for a referendum but no initiative, has never had a referendum qualify for the ballot.

7See    Raymond E. Wolfinger and Fred J. Greenstein, “The Repeal of Fair Housing in Cali­fornia: An Analysis of Referendum Voting,” America Political Science Review 62 (September ‘1968), 753-69, for a very discerning study of the voting patterns on this proposition.


In considering Table 5, there does not appear to be any clear relationship between voter rejection of initiatives and their decline in use. From 1919—29, Montana voters approved 11 out of 16 initiatives, and yet since 1929 there has been a sharp decline in the number of initiatives qualifying. In Missouri after 14 straight rejections between 1910 and 1919, Missouri voters in the 1920—29 period qualified 26 different initiatives for their ballot. Ohio voters approved 3 out of 8 initiatives in 1930—39 and approved the only 2 initiatives to qualify between 1940-49, but still initiative use has declined. Hence, there is no readily apparent pattern linking rejection of initiatives with decline in use.

In some of the other low-ranking states, such as Nevada, Utah or Nebraska, the initiative has been used only sparingly by interest groups and citizens ever since its inception. In these states there has been no sharp decline in use over the last several decade; rather, the initiative has never really be­come part of the customary political processes. Clearly, if the initiative is not used to some extent in the early years immediately after its adoption, it is likely to atrophy. Yet, it also seems clear that extensive use in the first years soon after initiative adoption does not guarantee there will be continued use.

In the high-use states after much early use the initiative seems to have become deeply engrained in the political culture of the state almost like another step in the legislative process. Groups and interests become accustomed to going the initiative route when the legislature-governor channel is blocked, and individuals and interest groups within the state have become adept in the intricacies of massive signature-gathering campaigns.11

Finally, it should be noted that initiatives do not seem to be qualifying for the ballot even in many of the high-use states as frequently as they once did. In commenting on the declining use of the initiative in Colorado, Professors Curtis Martin and Rudolph Gomez state:

There are several arguments, some of them of questionable validity, presented in explanation of the decline in the use of the initiative: (1) the major reforms that the people wanted during the early years of the 20th century have now been attained; (2) the general assembly is today more receptive to the demands of the groups seeking changes; (3) problems are so complex that the voters are hesitant about attempting to solve them; (4) the number of signatures needed on a petition to get a measure on the ballot is prohibitive.5

Or, as Howard D. Hamilton with tongue in cheek comments:

A casual explanation for the demise of direct democracy without the courtesy of an obituary might run something like this. In contrast to the


11Using the Elazar Political Culture Model, most states having the initiative fall along his moralistic-Moralistic/Individualist continuum (10 out of the 17 states listed in this category are initiative states). By collapsing Elazar’s data into an M/MI TM(i.e.

moralistic dominant, strong individualist strain, strong moralist strain) vs. I, IT, T/TM (traditionalist strain) there is a Q = .63 associating those in the first category with initiative states. See Daniel J. Elazar, American Federalism A View From the States


opening years of this century when life was simple and democratic feeling ran high, bubbling with naïveté and excessive optimism, in the latter half of the century direct democracy was anachronistic for a polity of two hundred million whose technical policy questions far exceed the ken of every man and require a minute division of labor and responsibility, with decision-makingassigned to elites, legislative and Bureaucratic, with specific competencies Direct democracy has no place in the age of organization.13

In summary, it is evident there are three distinct types of initiative states: first, those states where initiatives have never really been used to any great extent; second, those where initiatives were used extensively during the early years after the initiative’s adoption, but where there has been a sharp decline in use over the past several decades; and, third, those states where there may have been some decline in use but where there is still a steady and persistent number of initiatives qualifying for the state’s ballot.

However, if California’s reputation as a pace-setting state means any­thing, it could be that initiatives are due for a substantial revival. While there was a decline in initiative usage in the 1960s in California, recently there has been a reversal of this short-term trend.14 Since 1970, twelve separate initia­tives have qualified for the California ballot.15 Among the most recent are:  Governor Ronald Reagan’s tax limitation proposal voted down by the electorate in November 1973; a campaign contributions—lobby regulation measure successfully sponsored by Common Cause and The People’s Lobby in the June 1974 primary election; and in the November 1974 elections an initiative dealing with the damming of the Stanislaus River. Several other drives to qualify initiatives failed, Included in this category are measures which would have made California’s legislature unicameral, made marijuana possession legal, allowed 18 — 21 year-olds to drink alcoholic beverages legally, and a fourth which would have regulated the state’s oil industry. It is likely that one or more will be attempted again.


It has been suggested over the years, that two prime factors associate with frequent initiative use: strong pressure group systems and weak political parties. Indeed, strong pressure group systems and weak political party struc­tures are, it is believed, often inextricably linked. Because initiatives are fre­quently proposed by interest groups and since if they do qualify, weak political parties offer voters unclear voting cues on initiatives, it can be hypothesized

13“Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 124-25.

14“Initiative Make Big Comeback as Groups Seek to Bypass Legislature,” California Journal (August 1972), pp. 229-30.

15 It is interesting to note that the great new surge of initiatives placed on the California ballot has come after the state legislature became thoroughly professionalized. Special interests, both liberal and conservative, may have been thwarted by the tough, profes­sionalized legislature and been forced to take their proposals to the voter via the initia­tive.

16 Belle Zeller, ed., American Stat. Legislatures (New York: Crowell, 1945), pp. 190-91.


It should be noted that the Walker Innovation Index was based on adop­tion patterns on 88 separate programs over a 100-year period, while the Gray Overall Average Rank was based on how states rankon three prime issue areas—education, welfare and civil rights—over a similar time span. The rankings in this study were computed using the 1962—72 time period for initia­tive qualifying.

Again, the null hypothesis can be accepted in Table 11; there was little statistical difference on the U score and the Theta found between high-use and low-use states on the innovation rankings, orbetween initiative and non-initia­tive states.

Lastly, based solely on the Californian experience, several other supposed shortcomings of the initiative process can at least be questioned. It has been contended repeatedly that the initiative, rather than being a citizen weapon, has become a vehicle for special interests. For example, Owens, Constantini and Wechsler express this view when they state:

Such (initiative] campaigns are very expensive and have become highly sophisticated. Only well-organized, rather affluent coalitions of interests can afford to pursue the kinds of professional public relation campaigns associated with most ballot measures. The campaigns are often bitter, emotional contests in which the voter is not likely to make a choice between carefully argued positions. Instead, the voter is likely to be asked to respond to false images and half-truths. Finally, it is relatively easy for an interest group to put a measure on the ballot.25

However, recent California experiences with initiatives suggest this may no longer be true. Clearly, poorly organized and less affluent California groups have been able to place measures on the ballot—the marijuana initiative, Pro­position 18 in 1972; the coastal initiative, Proposition 20 in 1972; the environ­mental initiative, Proposition 9 in June 1970; and others. Moreover, voters do not seem as easily misled by deceptive advertising or expensive campaigns as was once thought. In 1972 on a number of key initiatives, and in 1973 on Governor Reagan’s tax initiative, the side with the most money actually lost.California’s well-educated voters seemed far more able to cope with intricate initiatives than had been presumed by political scientists.” It may be that the


that states may be innovative at one point in time but not in another, and the Walker rankings with their aggregated tabulations over a~ lengthy period do not always show this. For example, Oregon over the last several years has led the way in proposing environmental legislation to be later borrowed by other states; yet, it ranks 23rd in the Walker ranking (13th in the Gray rankings). See Virginia Gray, “Innovations in the States: A Diffusion Study,” American Political Science Review, 67 (December 1973), 1174-85; the Walker comment “Comment: Problems in Research on the Diffusion of Policy Innovation,” pp. 1186-~1; and the Gray “Rejoinder, to ‘comment’ by Jack L. Walker,” pp. 1192-93.

25John R. Owens, Edmund Constantini, and Louis F. Weschler, California Politics and Parties (Toronto: Macmillan, 1970), p. 273.

26John Mueller, “Voting on the Propositions: Ballot Patterns and Historical Trends in Cali­fornia,” American Political Science Review, 63 (December 1969), 1197-1212, comes to similar conclusions in his study For example he notes that California votersdo not blindly follow the newspaper endorsements ~1 the metropolitan press as had been frequently asserted or that they vote negatively, on all issues.


surprising voting results on initiatives over the last several years is a temporary phenomenon, but for whatever the reasons, the easy assertions about the apathy, indifference, and susceptible nature of voters can at least be questioned by the California experience. Hopefully, other political scientists in the future will begin to analyze in depth initiative voting behavior in order to test some of these questions.


There is little question that the initiative has been and continues to be primarily a western development. Only a few states outside the western half of the United States allow for the initiative, and in the few that do, it is used infrequently. On the other hand, most western states do provide for the initiative and extensive use is strictly a western phenomenon. Overall, there seem to be three separate types of initiative state: first, those where the initiative has been used persistently, though in some cases in somewhat reduced form, over the long time period the initiative has been in effect; second, those where the initiative was used during the first decades after initiative adoption but has since dropped off substantially; and third, those states where the initiative has never been used extensively.

In some states like California, Oregon, Washington or Colorado, the initiative has become commonplace. It has become merely another almost routine part of the legislative process. Groups and individuals in these states have become skilled in the intricacies of organizing massive signature-gathering campaigns and in persuading voters. These features do not seem to be the pattern in most initiative states. Additionally, it was noted that there did not appear to be any relationship\between the difficulty of a state’s legal require­ments to qualify an initiative, and the number of initiatives qualifying in that state.

In order to summarize most clearly the findings of this study, Table 12 has been constructed. In the table the various potential factors which did or did not relate to initiative use are listed. If a positive or negative association was found, it is listed as “positive” in the High-Low (high-use versus low-use initia­tive states) column or, in the Yes-No (initiative states versus non-initiative states)column.

We have found that weak legislative parties and two-party systems associate with initiative states. It was also discovered that strong pressure group systems, the C.C.S.L. functional criterion,and high “Quality of Life” associated with high-use initiative states. It should also be added that some of the potential factors approached statistical significance or had relatively high association scores, and, hence showed a possible relationship. However, for the most part the “negative” conclusion suggests there is little if any relationship between a potential factor and high-low, or initiative-non-initiative states.

Finally, the most important overall conclusion of this study is to ques­tion the prevailing negative assessment of initiatives held by politicians, not unexpectedly, and academics and journalists as well. The various conventional


                                                            TABLE 12Summary or Findings


Potential FACTORS

Association with Factor


Strong Pressure System
Weak Legislative Parties
Two-party System


Overall none none
Functional accountable positive
Quality of Life positive none
Walker none none
Gray none none


wisdom views of the initiative process were all discarded, and the familiar litany of other criticisms of the initiative process were found to be, at the least, open to question. The findings of this study, and the California experiences with initiatives over the last several years, have led this writer to question the prevail­ing negative assessment of initiatives. The initiative does provide a last resort to the public to bypass a recalcitrant legislature and/or governor. Indeed, legislatures may very well find it to their advantage to present propositions to the voters because of the inevitabilityof an initiative effort. It is hoped that other political scientists will reconsider this direct democratic technique and its potential. Clearly, initiatives do allow for decisive decisions on particularlysensitive, hard to resolve, issues.


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