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Initiative and Referendum Bring More Democracy to ND


One issue in a democracy is the balance of power between elected leaders and the citizenry. Shortly after the year 1900, a movement arose in North Dakota to establish a process of initiative and referendum, a method allowing voters to make laws themselves, rather than depending upon politicians and lobbyists. The key to initiative and referendum is found in the term itself – voters “initiate” a law. And referendum means a law already passed could be referred back to the people for a vote, allowing voters to “unmake” a law.

The first state to adopt the initiative was South Dakota in 1898. North Dakotans soon caught on to the idea, but it took ten years to be approved.

On this date, in 1914, the Bismarck Tribune reported that voters in Burleigh County were in favor of initiative by a count of 1169 to 363, and voted for referendum 1060 to 377. Similar margins were seen statewide, providing approval by an overwhelming majority, giving “unelected common folk” somewhat more power over state laws.

The initiative measure meant citizens could circulate petitions for a new law, and if 10 percent of voters (in a majority of counties) signed a petition, then the legislature had to accept or reject that bill within 40 days or the bill would be voted upon by the people.

Similarly, any law enacted by the state legislature could be subject to referendum, if voters successfully conducted a similar 10-percent petition within 90 days after the legislature adjourned. If a majority of voters in a subsequent election did not approve of the law, the law became undone.

Since adopted in 1914, initiative and referendum, in a limited way, has allowed voters to become legislators – to make, or unmake, laws. Nationally, 26 states have adopted initiative and referendum. Critics feel the procedure makes it too easy to get issues on a ballot.

Did North Dakota end up with too much democracy? Could legislators in Bismarck have real problems writing important laws to fix complicated problems? These questions remain … over 100 years later.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Amendments Carry In Morton County,” Bismarck Tribune, November 10, 1914, p. 4.

“Preliminary Returns,” Bismarck Tribune, November 10, 1914, p. 4.

“Amendments May Carry,” Bismarck Tribune, November 10, 1914, p. 4.

“Proposed Amendment To The Constitution Of The State Of N.D.,” Bismarck Tribune, December 26, 1914, p. 5-6.

“General News Of The Election,” Williston Graphic, November 19, 1914, p. 9.

“The Initiative And Referendum Wins Out,” Grand Forks Herald, November 8, 1914, p. 8.

“Several Bills Look Dubious,” Grand Forks Herald, April 27, 1915, p. 1.

“History of Initiative and Referendum in N.D.,” Vote.nd.gov, accessed on October 4, 2017.

Patrick Gallagher, “Faith in the Voters,” South Dakota Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2009, southdakotamagazine.com/faith-in-the-voters, accessed on October 4, 2017.