GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Citizen-initiated measures, such as gay rights and physician-assisted suicide, are not a uniquely Western U.S. phenomenon as traditionally thought, but have their roots across a wide geographical area that includes the Deep South, a new University of Florida study finds.
“Our study challenges the dominant historical narrative of why citizen initiatives were adopted in some American states a century ago,” said Daniel Smith, a UF political science professor whose study appears in the current issue of American Political Science Review. “The phenomenon may bring to mind places like Oregon, California, Colorado and Washington — states with populist and progressive traditions — but we found that lawmakers in the West were no more likely than those from other states to accede broad powers to voters in this way.”
Smith, who collaborated on the study with Dustin Fridkin, a UF doctoral student in political science, said political considerations — the degree of competition between political parties in a state legislature, party organizational strength and the presence of a third party — are the strongest predictors of whether a legislature gave voters the power to make their own decisions through the initiative process.
In 1898 South Dakota voters became the first to approve a constitutional amendment granting residents the power to decide initiatives and by 1918 voters in 20 states had followed suit, he said.
Southern states were thought to be more apprehensive about the initiative process because of its potential to mobilize African Americans, but the facts do not bear this out, Smith said. The legislatures of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas were among the early states to place referendums on the ballot-granting residents the opportunity to adopt direct democracy reforms, he said.
Minnesota and Wisconsin, two progressive states, have never implemented this form of direct democracy because voters ultimately did not approve it; and the supposed populist explanation does little to explain why Missouri adopted the initiative, Smith said, but not neighboring Kansas, a hotbed of populist sentiment a century ago.
“Lawmakers inherently don’t like the initiative process because it takes power away from them, so it raises the question of why they would give up their institutional authority in order to allow citizens to pass laws,” Smith said.
The study found that legislative competition between political parties played a key role in lawmakers’ decision to give citizens a direct role in shaping public policy. On average, the majority party’s surplus of seats was 22.5 percent among the 20 early state legislatures that referred the initiative process to the ballot compared with 26.7 percent for those state legislatures that did not, Smith said.
“A minority party might be willing to sell out the institutional powers of the legislature and allowing citizens to gain political power, in order to curry favor with the people and hopefully become the majority party,” he said. “And the majority party is put in the position of not wanting to be anti-populist.”
Also more receptive to citizen initiatives were states with weaker political parties — possibly because they achieved statehood later and had fewer established political traditions — and states with third parties, which further diluted majority power, he said.
In place in 24 states today, the initiative process is arguably the most important political institution available to citizens, but it has repercussions, Smith said. By allowing citizens to pass laws and constitutional amendments that can impinge upon the legislature’s ability to raise money, restrict certain taxes or direct types of expenditures, state legislatures become inherently weaker, he said.
“I think there are some aspects to it that are clearly troubling when you have votes taking place that are not fully informed and there’s no iterative decision-making — it’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on a particular policy with no chance to amend it,” he said. “On the flip side, there are a lot of positive ‘educative effects’ about the initiative process.”
States with initiatives over time have higher turnout in midterm and presidential elections, drawing voters to ballot measures and presenting candidates with substantive issues that can help set the campaign agenda, Smith said.
“People who live in initiative states are more likely to talk about politics and contribute money to interest group,” he said. “It makes sense because they are more engaged in the process, which is something the Progressives argued in its favor back in the early 1900s.”