History of direct democracy in Minnesota

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Three times in the last century, Minnesotans voted on a measure to establish a statewide process of initiative and referendum and each time a majority favored the process. But that alone was not been enough to enact initiative and referendum in the state.

In 1897 the Minnesota Legislature unintentionally frustrated the initiative process, as well as a great many future proposals to amend the state’s constitution, by proposing a supermajority requirement for ratifying amendments to the constitution.

In 1897, the legislators' actual objective was to block passage of a Prohibition amendment, which was bitterly opposed by brewery interests. In 1897 the question of initiative and referendum had not even been seriously discussed. It was still two years before Governor John Lind called for I&R in his message to the legislature, and eight years before the Minnesota suffragist Mrs. Eugenia Farmer helped found the state's I&R League.

The 1897 "Brewer's Amendment," sponsored by state representative (and Hamm Brewing Co. attorney) W. W. Dunn, proposed changing the ratification threshold for state constitutional amendments: instead of requiring ratification by a majority of the popular vote of those voting on each individual amendment, as was then the case (and is now the case in most states), they would require a majority of all votes cast in the election. In effect, under this system those who do not vote on a particular question are counted as voting against it.

Dunn's amendment passed both houses and was placed on the ballot for ratification by the voters in 1898. The amendment could not have passed under its own standard for voter ratification, but it did pass under the old standard. Of those who voted on the question, 68 percent favored it - but less than one-third of those voting in the election voted on this question.

The first Minnesota I&R amendment to get through the legislature was on the ballot in 1914 and was approved by a three to one margin, but lost because the "yes" votes were still less than a majority of all the votes cast in the election. In 1916, the legislature passed an I&R amendment again, and voters supported it by a margin of nearly four to one, but those voting in favor were only 45 percent of all voters at the polls, so it lost again. The Progressives decided the following year that the "supermajority" requirement was an "insurmountable obstacle," and apparently gave up.

Sixty years later, the newly elected liberal State Senator Robert Benedict of Bloomington renewed the fight for a statewide initiative process. By late April 1978 the three leading candidates in that year's gubernatorial election had endorsed L&R. But trouble for the amendment was brewing elsewhere. On April 25, in a special state election in St. Paul, voters approved an initiative to repeal a city ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of "affectionate or sexual preference" - a stunning defeat for gay rights advocates and the entire liberal community. Christian fundamentalists sponsoring the initiative had shrewdly petitioned for a low-turnout special election; such elections tend to favor conservatives, who turn out to vote in greater numbers than liberals.

Republican Al Quie, elected governor in 1978, made I&R the centerpiece of his legislative agenda and by April 1980 had pushed it through the legislature. The state senate approved it 47 to 13; in the house the vote was 86 to 47.

Lobbyists and attorneys for the beverage industry were the first to organize a campaign against voter ratification of the I&R amendment. Just as in 1897, they wanted to prevent Minnesotans from voting on any initiative that might qualify for the ballot, in order to ensure that one specific proposal - in this case, a Bottle Bill - could never pass. The industry lobbyists maintained a low profile and encouraged allies from liberal groups (who were upset about the 1978 gay rights vote in St. Paul) to lead the "Vote No" campaign.

The opposition group was co-chaired by Wayne Popham, a former Republican state senator and vice president of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, and Treva Kahl, who headed the state AFL-CIO's political department. Popham's group made Harriette Burkhalter, president of the state League of Woman Voters, the most visible anti-I&R spokesperson.

On November 4, 1980 the election returns showed 53.2 percent in favor and 46.8 percent against: not enough to win. Of the total that turned out to vote, 12 percent had failed to mark "yes" or "no" on I&R. With these added to the "no" side, the amendment lost.

Former governor Elmer Anderson and Governor Quie had run a lackluster pro-initiative campaign, but a University of Minnesota political scientist, Charles H. Backstrom, identified another reason for the loss: many voters failed to cast ballots on the I&R question because they were not tall enough to see it on their voting machines. This factor alone, Backstrom found, could have changed the outcome of the election.

The long-dead legislators of 1897, combined with voting machines designed for tall people, has thus far defeated the efforts of Minnesotans to get I&R. But after many years of no serious campaign for I&R, efforts are once again underway in the legislature and at the grassroots. Rep. Erik Paulsen introduced bipartisan legislation in the Minnesota House of Representatives to establish a statewide initiative and referendum process.

Rep. Paulsen’s bill had the support of Governor Jesse Ventura and passed the House twice, in 1999 and again in 2002, but failed to get a vote on the floor of the state Senate. A new citizens’ lobby, Let Minnesota Vote!, sprang up in 2002 to mobilize voters at the grassroots to pressure additional legislators.

In remains to be seen whether the current push for I&R will ultimately succeed, but a recent statewide poll showed 80 percent of Minnesotans favor a statewide initiative and referendum process. That level of public support and the willingness of initiative supporters to continue the battle ultimately bode well for I&R in Minnesota.[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.