History of Initiative & Referendum in Michigan

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In Michigan, citizens can amend their constitution or create a new state statute through the initiative process. Between 1963, when the Michigan Constitution enabling citizen initiative went into effect, and 2014, 31 proposed amendments to the state's constitution appeared on the ballot through the initiative process. Michigan voters approved ten of those 31 proposed amendments. In that same time, 13 initiatives to change or create state statutes appeared on the Michigan ballot through citizen initiative. Seven of those initiatives passed. Additionally, some proposed citizen initiatives were passed into law by the Michigan legislature without going to the ballot, but after sufficient signatures were collected to place the matter before the legislature. Ten legislative referendums were placed on the Michigan ballot through the signature-collection process between 1963 and 2014. In Michigan, successful referendum petitions result in a question asking voters if they wish to approve the targeted bill. Thus, referendum petitioners wish voters to vote "no" on such questions in order to overturn the targeted laws. Of the ten referendum questions, voters approved one and rejected nine.

How Michigan gained the I&R process

Agitation for initiative and referendum in Michigan started with the formation of the state's Direct Legislation Club in 1895 by George F. Sherman and David Inglis, both Detroit physicians. Inglis was 45 years old, a distinguished professor at the Detroit Medical College. Sherman and Inglis led I&R efforts in Michigan for over a decade without success, despite support from the noted reformer, Detroit mayor, and later Michigan governor Hazen S. Pingree. In 1900, S. D. Williams of Battle Creek cited the legislature's Republican majority as the major obstacle.

The reformers won passage of an I&R amendment at the state constitutional convention of 1907. The voters ratified it in 1908, but the victory turned out to be hollow. The amendment proved so restrictive that citizens were unable to place a single initiative on the ballot.

Michigan I&R advocates resumed lobbying the legislature for a better amendment process and gained the support of Governor Chase S. Osborn, a Progressive elected in 1910. The legislature rejected Osborn's attempts, but relented in 1913 during the administration of Governor Ferris, another I&R supporter.

Under the new provisions, it took 39,000 signatures to put a constitutional amendment initiative on the 1914 ballot.

Early initiatives

The first two initiatives that won voter approval were on the ballot in 1932: a measure to establish a liquor control commission passed overwhelmingly, and an amendment to limit property taxes won 51.1 percent of the vote.

In 1938, voters passed an amendment specifying that gas and vehicle weight tax money must be used for roads and streets; the following year, in an April special election, they approved a system for the nonpartisan election of judges. In 1946, voters enacted an initiative to ensure that part of the state's sales tax revenues were returned to the municipalities; in 1948, they modified the property tax limitation.

Initiatives between 1963 and 2000

The initiative for which Michigan is most famous is the "Bottle Bill," approved by a two to one margin in 1976, which put a 10-cent deposit on bottles and cans.

In 1998, the voters rejected a physician-assisted suicide initiative and in 2000 defeated a school voucher initiative that was sponsored by Amway founder Dick DeVos.

External links

Suggest a link


This article is significantly based on an article[1] published by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, and is used with their permission. Their article, in turn, relies on research in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.[2]


  1. History of Michigan's initiative (dead link)
  2. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution Temple University Press, 352 pp., ISBN-10: 0877229031, October 1991