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History of direct democracy in New York

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History of Initiative and Referendum in New York

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 to propose city charter amendments by petition of 30,000 or 10% of the number of valid votes in the last gubernatorial election, whichever is less.

It was last successfully used in 1993 to impose term limits on the City Council. 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. 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 similar proposal to reduce class sizes in the city's public schools was kept off the ballot in 2005.

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. In April , the New York Senate passed the initiative amendment with only three dissenting votes. However, as of the writing of this history, the State Assembly had not acted on the Governor’s proposal.

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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.)