History of direct democracy in Wisconsin
Wisconsin is practically synonymous with Progressivism, yet this state has never had a statewide initiative and referendum process. Wisconsin, along with Texas and Rhode Island, are the only three states in the Union where voters turned down their opportunity to get an initiative and referendum process.
Circumstances Surrounding Initiative and Reform:
In 1907 Lieutenant Governor W. D. Connor and State Senator W. D. Brazeau took up the cause and secured approval in the state senate by a 19 to 5 vote, but lost in the lower house. The Progressive reformers had been in power since 1900 and had enacted a host of reforms, but I&R was apparently not a priority.
Wisconsin law required that any state constitutional amendment needed to pass both houses by a three-fifths majority in two successive sessions of the legislature, with an election in between. Only then, after two years or more, could it be put on the ballot for ratification by the voters. The first decade of the 20th century in Wisconsin brought with it momentum for the I&R movement, which culminated in the passing of the I&R amendment by both houses in the 1911-1912 legislature. This amendment came with the support of Governor Francis E. McGovern, U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette and his Progressive Republican followers, and the state’s Socialists. It passed again in the 1913-1914 legislature, and was placed on the November 1914 ballot.
After 13 years in power, the Progressives had become overconfident. In the 1913 legislature, they passed a series of big tax increases to finance an ambitious public works program, as well as giving final approval to a constitutional amendment raising their salaries. This amendment went on the November 1914 ballot along with the I&R amendment and eight others, including one to allow recall of all state elected officers except judges.
After paying the higher taxes in 1914 passed by the progressives during the 1913 legislature, Wisconsin voters had had their fill of the liberal reformers and all their works. The amendments on the 1914 ballot offered an easy target for the voters’ wrath. Leading candidates of both major parties damned all the amendments, without informing voters that the initiative, referendum, and recall amendments offered just the mechanism they needed to block legislation they deplored. The state Democratic convention that year disapproved I&R in its platform, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Emmanuel L. Phillipp also urged voters to reject I&R.
On Election Day, all 10 amendments were defeated overwhelmingly. The voters discriminated hardly at all between them: the least popular amendments won 26 percent approval; the most popular, 38 percent. The I&R amendment and the recall amendment were approved by 36 percent of the voters. Because they decided to vote "no" on everything, Wisconsin voters in 1914 denied themselves the right to vote on issues of their choice.
This state history is based on research found in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution and was used with permission of the I and R Institute.