History of direct democracy in New York

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In 1911 the I&R movement organ Equity explained the failure to win initiative and referendum rights in New York: “No Direct Legislationist has expected New York State to come into the fold until about the last. The 'interests' are so strong, so thoroly intrenched [sic], and have so much at stake in that state, that it is expected that their strongest fight against real popular control of public affairs will be made there.”

In 1907 the attorney and “prominent club woman” Mrs. Harriet M. Johnston-Wood of New York City had helped organize the state Direct Legislation League. Hamilton Holt was elected President of the group. The League proved ineffective. In July 1909 Equity reported: “The introduction of I&R in the New York legislature seems to have been taken as a joke. It was referred to committee, and we find no other allusion to it.”

In 1914 Equity told its readers that Tammany Hall's recent electoral defeat should help I&R, but later reported that despite the decline of New York City's machine, “the legislature in Albany was still sufficiently in the control of reactionary leaders not to take any definite action in favor of I&R.”

By mid-1917, Buffalo's referendum provision was the only example of direct legislation in the state. Over the years the legislature proved willing to allow limited I&R in local jurisdictions, but never at the statewide level. The most important such I&R provision is the section of the state's Municipal Home Rule law that allows voters in a city to propose city charter amendments by petition of 30,000 or 10% of the number of valid votes cast in the city in the last gubernatorial election, whichever is less. The same law also provides a very limited local right of referendum.

In 1999, Governor George Pataki in his first “State of the State” address called for the establishment of the initiative and referendum process, however, the state legislature wasn’t interested in supporting establishing the process. In 2002, Pataki once again called for the legislature to pass a constitutional amendment establishing the initiative and referendum process. The proposal was strongly supported by the state’s Independence Party, Conservative Party and Republican Party. As yet, though, no action has been taken.[1]

In New York every 20 years the people must be given the option to call a constitutional convention, which might be a potential route to democratic reform. However, the last time the question was on the ballot in 1997, despite widespread agreement that NY state government is dysfunctional, many supposedly progressive groups joined traditional power holders and mobilized vote no campaigns to avoid risking their favorite sections of the current state constitution.[2]

New York City

The right to amend city charters by initiative was last successfully used in New York City in 1993 to impose term limits on the City Council, but in 2008 the mayor and council controversially extended the limits from two to three terms[3]. In 1966 police officers petitioned for - and voters approved - an amendment giving the police more control over the Civilian Review Board that had been set up to investigate citizens' complaints about the police. The overwhelming majority of charter revisions proposed by petition (over 30) have been kept off the ballot. New Yorkers petitioned in the late 1960s for an anti-Vietnam War initiative and, in 1985, for an initiative to prohibit harboring ships with nuclear weapons, but state courts ruled against ballot placement on the ground that these were not proper subjects to go into the city charter. A year later the right to recall elected officials was kept off the ballot. Similarly, a proposal to reduce class sizes in the city's public schools was kept off the ballot in 2003 and 2005.


  1. This was largely taken directly with permission from the I&R Institute whose research was based on David Schmidt's excellent book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution. (Additional edit contributions made to bring up to date and clarify relevant legislation.)
  2. Albany Law Review, "Mandatory Constitutional Convention Referendum"
  3. New York Times, "Extension of Term Limits Clears a Key Legal Hurdle," March 17, 2009