Even at Beginning, Initiative and Referendum Didn’t Lift Pro-Democracy Candidates

History seems to mitigate against synergy between ballot measures and partisan candidates’ fortunes. Even when we led the nation in putting initiative and referendum into our state constitution, we South Dakotans have not connected ballot measures with the candidates and parties who support them.

In the 1890s, South Dakota’s Populist Party pushed Father Robert Haire’s proposal to write initiative and referendum into our constitution. In 1896, the Populists linked up with Democrats and Free Silver Republicans to form the Fusion Party, which won a majority in the Legislature. That majority put initiative and referendum on the 1898 ballot.

In the election that fall, voters rejected all [statewide] Populist candidates except Governor Lee (who won by only 370 votes) but approved the direct legislation amendment by a vote of 23,816 to 16,483. The amendment carried in all parts of the state—in the corn and wheat belts, and in the mining and ranching areas. Of the fifty-nine counties listed as registering votes, only nine—Aurora, Bon Homme, Campbell, Faulk, Gregory, Hutchinson, Marshall, Turner, and Yankton—had majorities against the amendment. The largest bloc in opposition came from four counties (Bon Homme, Hutchinson, Turner, and Yankton) clustered in the southeast comer of the state. The “city” vote in South Dakota also seemed to support the amendment. Yankton County (Yankton) voted 58 percent against the amendment, but Brown County (Aberdeen) and Minnehaha County (Sioux Falls) voted 57 percent and 66 percent respectively for approval [Steven L. Lott, “The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in South Dakota: The Political Context,” Great Plains Quarterly, 1992, paper 674, p. 190].

Republicans, who refused to endorse initiative and referendum in 1898, took back majorities in both the Senate and the House in Pierre. Populists, who pushed a direct democracy measure that won 59% approval, lost two seats in the Senate and fifteen seats in the House.

It seems baked into the historical South Dakota DNA of initiative and referendum that candidates who back direct democracy will boost their own electoral fortunes.


6 Responses to Even at Beginning, Initiative and Referendum Didn’t Lift Pro-Democracy Candidates

  1. Steven Lott writes of South Dakota’s 1898 election:

    In the election that fall, voters rejected all [statewide] Populist candidates except Governor Lee (who won by only 370 votes) but approved the direct legislation amendment by a vote of 23,816 to 16,483.

    Both of South Dakota’s defeated incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives that year were Populists. The last time we elected anyone but a Democrat or a Republican to Congress was in 1896.

    Governor Lee was South Dakota’s only non-Republican governor from 1889 (statehood) until 1927. His 370-vote win in 1898 was the second-closest in state history, and his 319-vote win in 1896 was the closest. The Prohibition Party’s candidates received well over twice the margin of victory in each of those elections.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Edward_Kelley
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_Knowles
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_E._Lee

  2. Porter Lansing

    IT’S LIBERAL WEEK IN SODAK … quite possibly more liberals than conservatives, all week. Why do you think they all moved away?

  3. Donald Pay

    After working on a number of ballot questions, it became clear to me why this is. People weigh what’s important to them differently when considering their elected representatives. On ballot issues people usually focus down to what they think about one issue. They listen to the pros and cons, any advertising and what others are saying, but generally they don’t have to balance a lot of things to make a decision.

    Candidates come with positions on multiple issues, with various levels of adherence to party platforms and party identification, with distinct and different personalities and leadership experiences, with different vocational backgrounds and with different endorsements from various organizations and interest groups. It’s a lot to consider. What you are choosing in a candidate is who do you trust most to represent you and your key interests, as you define them. They aren’t gong to necessarily vote the way you want on every issue.

    That, to me, is the genius of the initiative and referendum. Everyone recognizes that elected leadership is not going to advance your ideas and interests all the time. Representative democracy can never do that, and you can never expect your legislator to vote 100 percent the way you think they should. South Dakotans seemed very early to understand that and to give legislators a pass on some issues, while reserving to themselves an ability to correct the errors of representative democracy. The I & R allows citizens to correct what might be a failure of representative democracy to follow the interests of the voters on key issues of importance to them.

  4. Kurt, do those records for close vote margin count by percentage as well as raw numbers?

    Porter—huh?

    Donald—interesting. But even if they are looking narrowly at policy issues on I&R (and that’s the different kind of thinking I want voters to do every time!) and thus not thinking about candidates’ positions on specific ballot measures, shouldn’t the candidate who campaigns on I&R on a meta level—I support I&R and will defend your right to exercise it against the Republicans who want to overturn your decisions and shut I&R down!—get some boost from all those I&R-attentive voters?

  5. Donald Pay

    Cory,

    No one thinks a legislator is going to be that dumb to actually vote to get rid of the I&R. Those bills never get out of committee.

    Legislators can submit bills to amend or repeal legislation that the people enact. When they do that they take a pretty arrogant position, particularly if the legislation has barely gone into effect. If they want to clarify some provision, they can get the sponsors of the measure to help. However, my inclination would be to not worry about making an argument about arrogance, but make the argument on the merits. And if they pass something, just take it to referendum.

    If you’re a candidate running against someone who has a habit of voting against what the public wants, you can make an issue of it. But one or two votes isn’t going to do it. It has to be a pattern of arrogance mixed with corruption.

  6. I’d written:

    [Governor Andrew Lee’s] 370-vote win in 1898 was the second-closest in state history, and his 319-vote win in 1896 was the closest.

    Cory asks:

    Kurt, do those records for close vote margin count by percentage as well as raw numbers?

    Good question, Cory. I believe Lee’s 319-vote margin works out to 0.39 percent, and his 370-vote margin translates to 0.54 percent. We’ve had at least two U.S. Senate elections* with larger differences in raw votes and smaller differences by percentage, but I’m not sure about other races for governor.

    *George McGovern beat Joe Bottum by 597 votes (0.23%) in the 1962 U.S. Senate election, and Tim Johnson beat John Thune by 524 votes (0.15%) in the 2002 U.S. Senate election. (Tom Daschle also won his first U.S. House election by 139 votes (0.11%) in 1978, but that wasn’t a statewide race.)