A Note from Cottonwood Corners

South Dakota has the distinction of being the first state in the Nation to provide for the popular Initiative and Referendum for enacting and rejecting legislation.  This was accomplished by constitutional amendment which was approved in 1898.  These forms of direct legislation, first used in 1908, rest on the theory that since the legislature may not always adequately represent them, the citizens should have the last word.

In 1972, the state constitution was amended to allow constitutional changes by initiative as well.  The voters in 1988 changed the state constitution to eliminate a requirement that an initiative be submitted to the legislature for approval before placed on the ballot.

Since we became the first state to add the Initiative and Referendum policy to our constitution, South Dakota voters have enacted dozens of laws at the ballot box and challenged many more which were passed by the legislature.  We have nixed the inheritance tax, banned corporate hog farms, okayed a Right to Work law, and said “no” to moving the University of South Dakota from Vermillion to Sioux Falls.

Since the first Initiative and Referendum election in 1908, some South Dakota lawmakers (governors and members of the house and senate — all elected by the citizens) find the process insulting — even embarrassing — when their laws are referred and defeated by the unelected common folks of South Dakota.

Lobbyists, particularly, find this process to be distasteful.  They would rather go to Pierre where they can wine and dine the lawmakers and argue their positions in the halls of the state capitol than in sixty-six counties across the state.

The common ordinary citizens and grassroots organizations — including some who can’t afford to send a lobbyist to Pierre — have won major victories because they collected thousands of signatures and took their ideas directly to the people.

In the autumn of 1906, just prior to the meeting of the 1907 legislature, the temperance folks initiated a county option bill which the legislature submitted to the people.  After the legislature adjourned, three other acts of that session were referred to the citizens.  For the first time, South Dakotans voted directly upon four different legislative issues.  The acts were: county option, reforming divorce procedure, prohibiting Sunday amusements, and protection of quail.  Only the county option failed to secure a majority vote.

Of all the Initiated and Referred measures submitted to the voters between 1908 and 1968, the requiring of headlights on locomotives in 1912 was approved by 82% of the voting public.  Two years earlier, it was only supported by 43% of the voters.  In 1922, South Dakota voters had the opportunity to vote on moving the University of South Dakota from Vermillion to Sioux Falls.  It only received support from 8% of the citizens.  This is the lowest approval by voters of any issue they were asked to approve.

On Sunday, October 17, 1909, John Z. White, a lecturer and prominent leader from Chicago, spoke before a large audience in Watertown on the Initiative Referendum.  The local paper printed the main points of his presentation which included the following:

  • If the legislature enacts all the laws desired by the people, the initiative will not be invoked. If, however, that body fails, as sometimes occurs, the people have at their disposal the machinery of popular sovereignty, in the shape of the Initiative.
  • By the Referendum, the people can prevent the legislature from enacting laws they do not wish. So long as the legislative body conforms to popular desire the referendum will not be called into action.
  • By the Recall, the people can elect “out of office” an incompetent or untrustworthy official. Where the people have this power, the officials usually behave.

The editor of the Pierre Weekly Free Press, in his front page editorial of November 23, 1911, wrote:  “This editor belongs to that rare class of optimists who believe that the human race is tending toward the millennium.  Rather slow, is that tendency, we must admit, but no less sure.  Compare the present age with the conditions existing a thousand years ago, when the strong man with a club dominated his weak brother, when the ‘survival of the strongest’ was the ruling passion.  Bye and bye, the weak men got together and organized against the encroachments of the physically strong.  The rule of reason and intelligence finally superseded the rule of brute force.”

“In politics note the change. The old system of driving the voters to the polls like sheep to the slaughter is no longer in vogue. The people are doing their own thinking as never before, and with the new weapons of the initiative, referendum and recall, are bound to rule ultimately.  No longer can any man or party ride to power on false promises and get away with it.  Neither can the ‘bosses’ steal the public blind, as in the old days. That powerful purifier, publicity, has done its silent but effective work, and it will not be long indeed when a man elevated to a public trust will strive as hard to please and serve his fellows as he did to plunder them under the old regime.  Let us hasten the day.”

The Initiative and Referendum strategy, from the earliest times to the present, is an indication of our trust in the citizens of this state and not always the politicians.

The conversation between a husband and wife published in several South Dakota newspapers back in 1911 perhaps best illustrates the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall:  “The husband goes home and announces to his wife that he is going down town to meet a fellow; that is the initiative.  The wife of the house, says: ‘Are you?’ in that ascending tone of voice that seems to walk over the top of her nerves; that’s the referendum.  Then the husband sits down and reads his paper; that’s the recall!”



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 16, 2021

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