History of direct democracy in Delaware

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During the Progressive era, the I&R movement publication "Equity" described Delaware as one of 11 states where "the initiative sentiment is all-powerful."

Delaware's extraordinarily difficult procedure for amending its state constitution stacked the deck against I&R activists from the start. Under the leadership of Wilmington's Francis I. DuPont (of the well-known chemical company family), I&R advocates persuaded the legislature to schedule a statewide advisory referendum on whether I&R should be added to the state constitution. In the 1906 election voters approved the idea by a landslide six to one margin.

Citywide initiative in Wilmington

Instead of obeying this mandate, the legislature passed a bill giving I&R rights to the city of Wilmington only. Voters there quickly used their new rights to put five initiatives on the city's ballot in early 1907. According to Equity, it was "the first use of Direct Legislation on general questions of public policy in an eastern city, and the first among Negro voters." Meanwhile, the Delaware Referendum League pressed on for statewide I&R. Twelve years later, in 1919, they still did not have the necessary two-thirds majority of both houses of the legislature.

Ferguson pushes I&R in the 1960s

In the 1960s, State Representative John P. Ferguson of the town of Churchman's Road sponsored an I&R bill, which he reintroduced in every session. By the mid-1970s, as Speaker of the House, he engineered the amendment's passage by a vote of 33 to 1; it then sailed through the state senate (14 to 3). The state constitution, however, required that a constitutional amendment be approved by two thirds of both houses a second time after the next election. This gave opponents, led by Governor Pierre S. DuPont IV (who did not have the reformist notions of the earlier DuPont), a chance to organize. On March 29, 1979, the house defeated I&R by 22 to 6, ending all hopes for its passage. Ferguson, frustrated by this defeat after so many years of effort, retired.

Police and firefighters disappointed

In 1980 the police and firefighters' unions collected enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot in Wilmington, only to be told that there was no longer an initiative procedure. The legislature had quietly passed a municipal charter law in 1965 that contained no I&R provision, and this law, state courts ruled, superseded the law that had given I&R to Wilmington in 1907! Between 1907 and 1987, the people of Delaware voted on only one statewide ballot question, which the legislature put on the ballot in 1984: should the state allow charities to sponsor gambling games to raise money? Voters said "yes" by a 72 percent majority to the Delaware Charitable Gambling Act (1984).[1]

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  1. This state history is based on David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution and is reproduced here with the permission of the Initiative & Referendum Institute.