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History of Initiative & Referendum in North Dakota

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In North Dakota, citizens can initiate state statutes and constitutional amendments through the ballot initiative process. They can also repudiate laws passed by the state legislature through the veto referendum process.

The movement to gain the right of initiative in the state began in 1896. After an eighteen-year battle, the state's citizens gained a new amendment to the North Dakota Constitution in 1914 ratifying their rights to propose direct legislation. Initiatives first appeared on the North Dakota ballot four years later in 1918, when seven measures were petitioned onto the state's ballot. All seven of those measures were approved.

Through the November elections of 2014, 198 initiatives have appeared on the state's ballot. Changes promulgated by the North Dakota State Legislature in recent years to laws governing the initiative process in North Dakota have led to a steep decline in initiatives that succeed in making the ballot. Five initiatives have made the ballot since 2000. By way of comparision, in the decade between 1930-38, 45 initiatives qualified for the ballot.

Early supporters of initiative

The father of the initiative process in North Dakota was L. A. Ueland of Edgeley, a state legislator who served on the executive committee of the national Direct Legislation League from its founding in 1896.

Katherine King of McKenzie, North Dakota, is celebrated as the mother of the North Dakota initiative. In 1902, Mrs. King organized a state chapter of the Direct Legislation League. Mrs. King's League won passage of Ueland's I&R bill through both houses of the legislature in 1907, despite opposition from Prohibitionists who feared the possibility of an initiative to repeal the state's anti-liquor amendment.

The 1907 vote

The 1907 I&R amendment needed to be approved by the legislature twice, in two successive sessions with an election in between. In 1909 the legislature reversed itself and killed the I&R amendment. Mrs. King and Ueland pressed on nonetheless, and won the necessary legislative approvals in 1911 and 1913. The I&R amendment finally went to the state's voters for ratification in 1914 and passed.

The agrarian revolt

The watershed event in North Dakota's century of statehood was the agrarian revolt of 1915-1916, which spawned the Non-Partisan League, one of the most successful state-level reform organizations in the nation's history. In that revolt, which was dramatized in the 1979 movie Northern Lights, farmers united against an unresponsive state government controlled by banks, railroads, and big grain dealers.

The League put seven constitutional amendment initiatives on the 1918 ballot. All seven passed by similar majorities of about 58 percent. Taken together, they brought about a revolutionary change in state government by:

  1. Reducing the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative for the ballot.
  2. Forbidding the legislature to exempt any bills from the veto referendum process.
  3. Abolishing the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be approved in two successive legislatures (in favor of a single approval).
  4. Authorizing the legislature to classify personal property for purposes of tax exemptions
  5. Authorizing the legislature to impose an acreage tax on land to insure crops against hail damage.
  6. Authorizing the state to issue up to $10 million in bonds rather than the existing $200,000 limit, allowing mortgages on state industries.
  7. Authorizing the state, counties, and cities to engage in business activities, thus clearing the way for bills that set up the state-owned bank, mill, and grain elevator, which continue to operate to the present day. Considered "socialistic" enterprises by critics, they provided a model for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority.

Bankers and grain dealers sponsored an initiative backlash against the state-owned industries in 1920, gaining voter approval of measures requiring public audits of such industries, banning real estate loans by the state bank, and limiting state bank deposits to the assets of the state, rather than including local governments' assets. But North Dakotans in 1921 defeated four initiatives to further restrict the operations of state-owned industries, including one that would have abolished the state bank outright. In 1922 voters again confirmed their support for the state bank by approving an initiative doubling the state's bonded indebtedness limit so that the bank could make more farm loans.


A state record of 18 initiatives qualified for the ballot in 1932. Among the measures passed by voters were initiatives reducing property taxes, prohibiting crop mortgages, banning corporations from farming, reducing salaries of judges and state and local elected and appointed officials, reducing officials' travel expenses, and abolishing the requirement of published, public notice regarding auction of land to pay delinquent taxes.


In 1938, North Dakotans passed an initiative providing for pensions for senior citizens, and in 1940, they approved measures earmarking sales tax revenues for schools and welfare and increasing funding for financially distressed schools. In 1944, the voters initiated over $12 million worth of bonds to match federal funds for highway construction, and in 1948, they voted to ban parking meters. Notable initiatives passed in the 1950s include a conflict-of-interest measure prohibiting legislators from doing over $10,000 worth of business annually with the state or local governments (1954), and an initiative that set up a $1 million college student loan fund from state bank profits (1955). In 1962 voters struck a blow for ballot-box freedom by passing an initiative abolishing the requirement that they publicly state their party affiliation when they vote.

Robert McCarney, tax reform activist

In 1963 Robert P. McCarney, a Bismarck auto dealer, sponsored three referendum petitions to block tax increase bills which just been approved by the legislature. Although the state's voters upheld each of the bills, McCarney was not about to give up. Years earlier, as chauffeur to Non-Partisan League Governor (and later U.S. Senator) William ("Wild Bill") Langer, McCarney had learned the value of tenacity in politics. Over the next 17 years, he sponsored 10 successful petition drives for initiatives or referenda on tax issues. In 1978 his initiative to lower the North Dakota income tax on individuals, but raise it for corporations, won - the capstone of his activist career. It is still said in state government circles that North Dakota's tax structure is more a product of McCarney than of the legislature.

Oil tax

In 1980, before he was elected to Congress, Byron Dorgan sponsored an initiative to more than double the tax on oil production (from 5 percent to 11.5 percent). Despite strong opposition from oil companies, it passed with 56 percent of the vote.

Healthcare reform

The other most hotly contested initiative of the state's history was a 1978 measure to establish a state agency to regulate health care costs. Sponsored by state Insurance Commissioner Byron Knudsen, it provoked intense opposition from hospitals' and doctors' organizations, which raised $175,000 for their effort to oppose it - a huge amount by North Dakota standards. Voters rejected the initiative by a three to one margin. Since 1978, numerous other issues have been voted on through the initiative process – term limits and environmental regulation – to name a few.

Veto referenda in North Dakota

Prior to laws enacted by the North Dakota State Legislature that made it considerably more difficult to place a measure on the ballot through collecting signatures, North Dakota citizens made frequent use of their right to nullify laws passed by the state legislature. Between 1918 and 1986, actions of the state legislature were subjected to the veto referendum process 72 times. However, there has been no veto referendum on the state's ballot in the last twenty years.

See also

External links


This article is partly 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 North Dakota's initiative
  2. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution Temple University Press, 352 pp., ISBN-10: 0877229031, October 1991