Those seeking to discredit direct democracy – the people making and unmaking laws by petition and the ballot box – are fond of quoting Hamilton, Madison and other of America’s Architects. This is entirely misplaced.
The Fathers concerned themselves with designing a federal economy, leaving the question of who got the vote and what that vote meant to the states. Granted, most, if not all, states initially reserved the right to vote to white, male landowners.
These same states, however, steadily liberalized their election laws. By the late 1800s, nearly every state operated under a constitution approved by referendum and every state in the 45 elected its governor at the polls.
Direct democracy at the state/local level predates the federal constitution and has remained a constant of American democracy.
* Pre-colonial Rhode Island offered its citizens the initiative and referendum.
* The Massachusetts constitution of 1780, while promulgated by convention, included a provision by which the people could demand changes, and a 1795 referendum approved the document as written.
* The original Georgia Constitution required amendments to originate by initiative petition. The Fathers saw no problem in Georgia — initiative requirement and all — joining the Union.
* In 1786, New Hampshire’s lawmakers found themselves besieged by petitions for relief signed by those with no gold or silver to pay their debts. The legislature responded by drafting a tepid, inadequate response, sending it to the towns for a referendum vote and washing “its hands of the annoying subject.”
* The 1852 Vermont legislature passed a prohibition statute and referred it to the people. The state’s Supreme Tribunal endorsed the action, reasoning that the legislators, as “the mere agents and instruments of the people,” could surely appeal to the populace as to the wisdom of legislation.
* In 1846, even Congress endorsed the practice of referring questions to voters. The law receding parts of Virginia took effect only if approved by the residents of the affected county.
In Oregon, considered the birthplace of direct democracy in America, the democratic pedigree stretches back to before the Sunset State joined the Union.
If the story is to be believed, the Oregon Territory escaped the jaws of the British Lion in large part because Joe Meek convinced enough of those gathered at Champoeg to join him on his side of the line — Direct Democracy at its most basic.
Indeed, according to a relatively-contemporary commentator writing in a California newspaper, the first white residents of the Oregon Territory shared “an almost religious devotion to the principle of popular self-government.”
The bill granting Oregon statehood required that the proposed state constitution be submitted to the people. This, said turn-of-last-century Gov. T.T. Geer — the first Oregon governor born in Oregon — established public participation at “the first rattle out of the box.”
When George H. Williams proposed placing a legislative referendum power in the original Oregon Constitution, other delegates responded that American legislatures didn’t need express permission to refer an issue to the ballot.