History of Initiative & Referendum in Nebraska

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The history of the Initiative and Referendum process in Nebraska began in 1897 when it became the first state in the nation to pass a bill allowing initiative and referendum in municipalities, not on the state level. This bill was the Sheldon-Geiser Act, sponsored by state legislator A. E. Sheldon.

See also: History of Nebraska's initiative laws

Passing statewide I&R

Walter Breen of Omaha led early efforts for I&R in Nebraska. Breen, a native of London, emigrated to the United States at age 17 and lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, before settling in Omaha. He became a successful real estate salesman and was among the initial organizers of the Populist Party. In 1897, by the age of 30, he had become secretary of the Omaha Direct Legislation League, as well as a member of the seven-man executive committee of the National Direct Legislation League.

Since Nebraska did not have Prohibition, the Prohibitionists favored I&R, but liquor interests blocked it until 1911. I&R finally made it through the legislature with the support of the orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, along with H. Mockett, Jr., president of the Nebraska Direct Legislation League, and Professor F. E. Howard of the state university. Bryan, who spoke on behalf of I&R throughout the nation, wrote in a 1909 letter: "I know of nothing that will do more than I&R to restore government to the hands of the people and keep it within their control." In 1912, Nebraska voters approved I&R by a margin of thirteen to one. It helped that under Nebraska's constitutional amendment ratification procedure, blank ballots were counted as "yes" votes, which is the opposite of the system that doomed I&R in Minnesota.

Landmark initiatives

Nebraska's most famous initiative was the successful 1934 amendment to create the nation's only unicameral state legislative body. U.S. Sen. George Norris, who is best known for his bill creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, led the unicameral campaign. Another highlight of Nebraska initiative history was the passage, in 1982, of a constitutional amendment prohibiting farm buy-outs by corporations, which was the toughest statewide anti-corporate farm legislation in the nation.

Initiative frequency

Nebraskans have placed 48 initiatives on statewide ballots between 1914 and the end of 2014. The first was a 1914 women's suffrage initiative, defeated by a 52.4 percent negative vote of the all-male electorate. Nebraskans in 1930 approved authorization for municipally owned electric utilities to extend their lines. In 1966, they voted by a narrow margin to prohibit property taxes.

As with many initiative states, there has typically been one person who becomes personified as the tax reformer in the state. Nebraska is no exception. Ed Jacksha is a legend. He has been involved in almost every tax reduction measure in the state and has championed initiative rights for decades. He was also instrumental, as was State Auditor Kate Witek, Attorney General Don Stenberg, Bob Wright and Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, in getting a term limits initiative for state legislators passed in 2000.

Laws regulating the initiative process

Almost as soon as Nebraska residents had the right of I&R, the Nebraska Unicameral started passing laws to regulate the process. See History of Nebraska's initiative laws. This accelerated dramatically in the 1990s during the period when four term limits initiatives were put on the Nebraska ballot via citizen initiative that limited the terms of members of the Unicameral.


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 Nebraska's initiative
  2. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution Temple University Press, 352 pp., ISBN-10: 0877229031, October 1991