Direct democracy–which includes the plebiscitary devices of initiative, referendum, and recall–is the political process whereby citizens participate directly in the making of public policy by casting their votes on ballot measures. The so-called citizen initiative is the most participatory form of direct democracy. With the initiative, citizens collect a specified number of valid signatures in order to place either a statutory measure or a constitutional amendment on the ballot for fellow voters to adopt or reject. In addition to the initiative, the "popular" referendum allows citizens to petition their legislatures to place a disputed legislative action on the ballot for the voters to reconsider, and the recall enables citizens to collect signatures to force a retention vote of an elected official.
The practice of direct democracy grew out of the doctrines put forth by the Populist (People's) Party, the single-taxers led by Henry George, and the Farmers Alliance during the late nineteenth century. In 1898 the citizens of South Dakota became the first in the Union to adopt the use of the three devices at the state level. The Reverend Robert W. Haire, an activist in the Knights of Labor, is generally credited with devising the original South Dakota scheme. Following the lead of South Dakota, voters in seven other American states in the Great Plains region adopted some form of statewide direct democracy: Montana (1906), Oklahoma (1907), Colorado (1910), New Mexico (1911), Nebraska (1912), North Dakota (1914), and Wyoming (1968). In Canada, more recently, the Prairie province of Saskatchewan adopted a nonbinding initiative in 1991. The citizens of Manitoba embraced the initiative in 1916, but it was subsequently declared unconstitutional.
In the United States during the 1910s, direct democracy was highly prized by progressive reformers as an instrument to return government back to the people. It was viewed as an institutional check on the power of unresponsive state legislatures, which were often seen as being under the thumb of special interests. Today, the initiative process is utilized quite frequently by citizen groups, as well as by special interests, in the Great Plains states where it is permitted, but the popular referendum and the recall election are seldom used.
See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Haire, Robert.
Daniel A. Smith University of Denver
Boyer, J. Patrick. Direct Democracy in Canada: The History and Future of Referendums. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992.
Cronin, Thomas E. Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Munro, William Bennett, ed. The Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1912.