History of Initiative & Referendum in Utah

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In 1900, Utah became the second state in the nation to ratify and establish an initiative and referendum process.[1] The man most responsible for this early victory was State Representative Sherman S. Smith of Ogden, the legislature's "lone Populist." But another I&R advocate, Henry W. Lawrence of Salt Lake City, wondered whether the legislature would pass reasonable implementing legislation. He said, "The great trouble now will be to get the Legislature to adopt legislation to...make it [I&R] effective, as our Legislature will be Republican and no doubt generally opposed to the principle."

Lawrence's concern was on target. Sixteen years later, I&R advocates were still waiting for the legislature to pass an implementing law. Finally, in 1916, they organized the Popular Government League of Utah to lobby for such a law. Its officers were Parley P. Christensen, president; Dr. Grace Stratton-Airey, vice president; and Parker B. Cady, secretary-treasurer.

The legislature reluctantly passed an implementing bill, but it was worthless: among other restrictions, it specified that anyone signing a petition to put an initiative on the ballot had to sign "in the office and in the presence of an officer competent to administer oaths." The reformers were outraged. The law effectively prohibited initiative sponsors from circulating petitions. After World War II, the restrictions finally were eased, but it was still not easy to put an initiative on the ballot.

See also: List of Utah ballot initiatives

First successful initiative in 1960

In 1960, Utah voters approved Initiative A – the first time a statewide initiative had been approved, and the third time one had appeared on the ballot. Initiative A established a merit system procedure for hiring and employing county deputy sheriffs, thus ending the corrupt patronage system.

Hunters shoot down initiatives

Over the years, the animal protection movement was very active in Utah – putting fear in the hearts of hunters. Out of fear of how the animal protection groups would use the initiative process, pro-hunting groups began a crusade against the initiative process. In 1998 they were successful in convincing the state legislature to drastically curb the initiative process by increasing the distribution requirement for initiatives and also requiring that animal protection initiatives must pass by a two-thirds vote of the people. This was accomplished through Proposition 5 in 1998, a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment. The constitutionality of Proposition 5 was unsuccessfully challenged in federal court in Initiative & Referendum Institute v. Herbert.

25 percent initiative success rate

From 1952 through 2014, Utahns petitioned 20 initiatives onto the ballot; only four of these have passed. Those four are the 2000 Marijuana Initiative, the 2000 English As Official Language Initiative, the 1976 End Compulsory Fluoridation Initiative and 1960's Initiative A.

Gallivan v. Walker

In 2002, the Utah Supreme Court, in the case of Gallivan v. Walker, struck down the state statute passed in 1998 that made the state's distribution requirement more restrictive, and ordered the state to put the Utah Radioactive Waste, Initiative 1 on the ballot even though it fell short (by six counties) of satisfying the 20-county distribution rule.

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This page is partly based on an article 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.