The Story of American Direct Democracy - Part Two

Pictured: Proponents of the Massachusetts Casino Repeal Initiative on Election Day 2014.

Pictured: Proponents of the Massachusetts Casino Repeal Initiative on Election Day 2014.

This post was written by Ian Clarke, the Tufts University fellow working on the Citizens’ Initiative Review project team this summer. As part of Ian's work, he'll be preparing a weekly blog exploring topics related to CIR and the initiative and referendum system in Massachusetts. July 17, 2016.

The initiative and referendum craze that swept the newly populist nation in the late nineteenth century didn’t compel as many Americans in the Eastern half of the country. However, while the overwhelming majority of its neighbors remained traditional in the avenues they offered for new legislation, Massachusetts, well in keeping with its tradition of blazing trails, became a hotbed in the push for direct democracy.

Around the turn of the century, the first efforts to establish direct democracy in Massachusetts began to organize, without success. Finally, after a decade of misfires, the Massachusetts Direct Legislation League began hiring effective, energetic staff who managed to organize popular support for their ideas. Both the Democrats and the Roosevelt-supporting Progressive Party utilized this support as a weapon in the elections of 1912.

Three years later, Governor Walsh made direct democracy one of his priorities in his efforts to secure a constitutional convention through a legislative vote. This measure was finally approved by both houses and the voters, leading to the 1917 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. The vote to institute Initiative and Referendum processes was ultimately a clean-cut success, with a tally of 163-125-30, but only with significant compromises. These conditions continue to stretch the amount of time necessary for a measure to reach a public vote relative to other states with Initiative and Referendum processes.

In the Massachusetts public’s first-ever ballot question, cider and beer were officially designated as non-intoxicating, and thus became legal. A decade later the people revoked Massachusetts’ prohibition measure entirely. Other changes in the early years of direct democracy involved incremental changes in everything from the manner in which party candidates had to be nominated to the regulation of sports on Sundays.

By the middle of the century, ballot questions became a wholly ingrained part of the state’s political landscape. Even though they were in function separate from the world of the legislature, they became important political tools as candidates touted support or opposition to controversial questions. An effort to legalize female contraception was arguably the most decisive factor in the Democrats securing the first majority in the House of Representatives in the state’s history.
A grassroots activist culture developed around initiatives in the second half of the century, leading to heavy popular-instituted regulation of pollution and animal testing. Other targets have included the power of the Governor’s Executive Council and tax levels.

But more recently, concerns have grown nationwide that direct democratic processes, intended to circumvent special interests and put more power in the hands of the public, are susceptible to messaging tactics from small groups of people with particular policy agendas. More and more members of the public vote based on little if any fact-based information, and there have been allegations in many states that interest groups have pushed for questions to reach the ballot because legislatures would never allow them.

In considering the reasons we adopted the Initiative and Referendum system in Massachusetts, it’s clear that we have to do more to reconcile the way the system works and the motivation behind it. One of these steps could very well be the process the Citizens’ Initiative Review Pilot Project team will conduct, and I personally look forward to observing it to find out this August.