How South Dakota pioneered the idea of a ‘People’s Legislature’

Shortly before the close of the 19th century, the citizens of South Dakota approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the use of two new tools of direct democracy, the voter initiative and the popular referendum.
The first-of-its-kind state constitutional provision heralded a new era in voter participation in the lawmaking process, even as it reflected longstanding American traditions of civic engagement dating back to New England’s earliest town hall meetings.

Long before the founding of the United States, New Englanders were accustomed to establishing or ratifying local ordinances through direct participation in citizen meetings. That tradition eventually gave rise to the legislative referendum process, under which citizens are empowered to approve or reject laws and amendments proposed by their elected officials.

Though not uncommon at the local level, even during the infancy of the American republic, the means of direct citizen participation in the lawmaking process were slow to take root at the state level. As early as 1775, a proposal authorizing a legislative referendum process in Virginia was championed by Thomas Jefferson, but ultimately, it was not included in his home state’s constitution.
Three years later, Massachusetts became the first state to ratify its new constitution by means of a statewide referendum. Several other states soon followed suit, and eventually, Congress required all states entering the union after 1857 to use the legislative referendum as a means of enacting any constitutional changes.
But until the Gilded Age of the late 19th century began to give way to the Progressive Era of the earlier 20th, the use of direct democracy at the state level remained limited to the enactment or amendment of state constitutions.
That limitation began to be tested with the rise of the Populist Movement in the 1890s. Fueled by a growing disenchantment with government and the influence wielded by special-interest groups, the Populists began advocating for a comprehensive set of political reforms, typically including women’s suffrage, the direct election of U.S. senators and greater involvement by citizens in the lawmaking process.
South Dakota proved to be fertile ground for the direct-democracy campaign.
As early as 1885, Father Robert W. Haire, an activist Catholic priest from Aberdeen, had envisioned the establishment of a “People’s Legislature,” which incorporated the basic tenets of the modern day “initiative,” a voter-created proposal that is placed on the ballot for approval by the citizens; and the “legislative referendum,” a process under which a proposal generated by the legislature is subsequently referred to the voters for acceptance or rejection. Following South Dakota’s admission to statehood in 1889, the Populist Party incorporated the initiative and referendum idea into its platform in 1892.
A year later, the state’s first legislative proposal to establish these tools was formally introduced, but it was defeated by the Republican-controlled Legislature. A second attempt in 1895 also failed. Only after the Populists joined forces with Democrats to seize control of the South Dakota Legislature in 1896 did the tide begin to turn. A proposed constitutional amendment authorizing the initiative and referendum was introduced in January 1897. It passed the House before the end of the month and won final approval in the Senate at the end of February.
Appropriately, the citizens of the state had the last word when the proposed amendment was referred to voters, who overwhelmingly ratified it in 1898.
Today, voter initiatives and referendums are permitted in 24 states, and renewed interest in direct democracy has resulted in a sharp increase in the use of these mechanisms. Nationwide, more than 375 voter initiatives were considered during the 1990s alone, and almost as many were considered during the first decade of this century.


First in the Midwest highlights noteworthy “firsts” in state government that occurred in this region. If you have ideas from your state, please contact Mike McCabe.
Stateline Midwest: February 20162.03 MB