Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

INTELLIGENT and profitable discussion of practical problems of social or governmental improvement must include full recognition and due consideration of the forces controlling human action. Society and government are purely organizations of human beings, and their limitations and possibilities are measured by the average of individual development. The desideratum is to give the greatest freedom to beneficial influences, and to restrain all tendencies toward evil influences. Successful and permanent government must rest primarily on recognition of the rights of men and the absolute sovereignty of the people. Upon these principles is built the superstructure of our Republic. Their maintenance and perpetuation measure the life of the Republic. These policies, therefore, stand for the rights and liberties of the people, and for the power and majesty of the government as against the enemies of both.

Delegated government exists where the public servant owes his nomination and election to known individuals, — political bosses, caucus, convention and legislative managers, or campaign contributors, — thus establishing personal obligations and accountability, resulting in service for selfish interests. Popular government exists where the public servant is under obligation to and solely accountable to the composite citizen, individual unknown. This necessarily results in public service for the general welfare, and not for any selfish interest, the public servant realizing that otherwise he must be recalled, or will certainly fail of reëlection.

Because society and government should be based upon a full recognition of the elemental forces controlling human action, I urge the reader’s careful attention to my analysis of these forces. I assert that either impulse or deduction, followed by conviction, controls all human action. If the individual be confronted with the necessity for immediate action, then impulse arising from emotion, such as love, hatred, anger, sympathy, sentiment, or appetite, is the determining force. But when the individual has days, weeks, or months to consider his course, then deduction, followed by conviction, is the determining force. Without conviction, there will be no action.

Individual action should be guided by reason, but is frequently emotional. Community action, as in an election, must be based upon conviction resulting from analysis and deduction.

I assert that self-interest is the force controlling every future or postponed action of the individual — not necessarily always selfish interest, for sometimes the individual is satisfied with his participation in the improved general welfare incident to the action. Generally, however, the individual’s action, when unrestrained, is governed by his own selfish and personal interest.

No two people in the world are exactly alike; consequently each individual has a different point of view or idea as to what constitutes his own particular personal or selfish interest. Where individuals act collectively or as a community, — as they must under the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall, — an infinite number of different forces are set in motion, most of them selfish, each struggling for supremacy, but all different because of the difference in the personal equations of the different individuals constituting the community. Because of their difference, friction is created — each different selfish interest attacks the others because of its difference. No one selfish interest is powerful enough to overcome all the others; they must wear each other away until general welfare, according to the views of the majority acting, is substituted for the individual selfish interest.

If all the individual units of society were alike, then selfishness would dominate not only the individual but the community action as well. But so long as no two people are alike, just so long will selfishness dominate the individual if permitted to act independently, while general welfare must control all community action; for if the individual cannot secure the gratification of his own selfish desire, then he must rest satisfied with the improved general welfare in which he, as one of the units of the community, is a proportional participant.

This logic applies to a community or a class. Under the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall there can be no class or community action against the general welfare of the citizens constituting the zone of action. The individual, through realization of the impossibility of securing special legislation for himself and against the general welfare of the community, soon ceases his efforts for special privilege and contents himself with efforts for improved general welfare. Thus the individual, class, and community develop along lines of general welfare rather than along lines of selfish interest.

In further refutation of the unwarranted fear of hasty or unwise community action, I assert that no individual will ever vote for, or willingly assent to a change, unless satisfied that that change will directly benefit him individually, or that the action will bring improved general welfare to the community, in which event he is satisfied with proportional participation incident to that improvement. In other words, community action determines the average of individual interests, and secures the greatest good for the greatest number, which is the desideratum of organized society.

Hence I again assert that because of the forces controlling all human action the people cannot under the Initiative enact legislation against general welfare or in favor of any selfish interest, nor will they select any public servant who, in their opinion, will be dominated by any selfish interest. Though I grant they may make a mistake in selecting public servants, I assert that they will not make the same mistake twice in the same individual; that is, under an efficient direct primary law and corrupt practices act, the people will not renominate an individual who has failed to serve faithfully the community he represents.

I have demonstrated that under the Initiative and Referendum the people cannot legislate against the general welfare, and by the same logic I assert that under the Recall the people will never recall a public servant, judicial or otherwise, who serves the general welfare.

To elucidate the subject, I shall give a few concrete illustrations. Suppose that in a city of twenty-five thousand inhabitants where there are four thousand voters, a private corporation owns the water system and charges exorbitant rates for the service. The self-interests of probably twenty thousand of the inhabitants would require municipal ownership of the water system as a means of improving the service and reducing the cost, but the self-interests of perhaps five thousand of the inhabitants require continuation of private ownership, because these individuals are either stockholders in the company, employees of the company, recipients of business patronage from the company, or political beneficiaries of the system of private ownership. These few individual self-interests — under the existing system of convention, nomination, and legislation through a city council — are able, through control of the press and the manipulation of nominations and municipal legislation, to prevent or delay the efforts of the vast majority to change the system to one of public ownership.

Under the Initiative, which would permit direct legislation on the subject, this question could be submitted to a voteofall the qualified electors. Applying the principle I have fully stated in the foregoing paragraphs, when this question came up for determination by the voters there would be conflict between the self-interests of the individuals, but during the campaign preliminary to the election the subject would be discussed and considered in all its bearings. Each individual would make his own deductions as to his own selfinterest and the general welfare of the community, with the result that selfish interest would be worn away and the greatest good for the greatest number secured. Unless a majority of the voters were convinced that public ownership would be to their interest, the proposal for public ownership would be defeated.

I hear opponents of popular government asserting that the people might be misled and act unwisely on a question of this kind, and I reply that they are the best judges of their own selfinterest and have a right as sovereign citizens to determine the policies of their government. They will, at least, act honestly, which cannot always be said for city councils influenced by the power of a public-service corporation and protected by the silence or active defense of a subsidized press.

At this place in my discussion of the practical operation of popular government I deem it appropriate to explain that this article is designed primarily as an answer to an article by Representative Samuel W. McCall, published in the Atlantic Monthly for October, 1911. It is my endeavor, however, to make this article complete in itself, and I shall refer to Mr. McCall’s article only so far as is necessary in order to correct a few errors into which he has apparently fallen.

The failure of Mr. McCall to comprehend the practical operation of the Initiativeand Referendum is illustrated by his reference to the Columbia River fisheries legislation as a case in which the system worked unsatisfactorily. Evidently without knowing he was doing so, he cited an unquestionable instance of the elimination of selfishness and the substitut ion of general welfare. The case referred to was the submission of two Columbia River fishery bills to the people of Oregon in 1908. The rival fishing-interests — the gillnet fishermen on the lower river, and the fish-wheel operators on the upper river — had conducted their work so effectively as to threaten ruin of the industry by destruction of the fish before they could reach the natural spawning grounds. Almost every two years the rival fishing interests had carried their fight to the Slate legislature, and the legislature failed to enact any adequate legislation for the protection of the natural supply of fish. The State was maintaining hatcheries for the artificial propagation of salmon, but notwithstanding the maintenance of this work the fish-supply was steadily diminishing.

Believing that they could promote their own selfish interests and eliminate their rivals by resort to the Initiative, the fish-wheel operators of the upper river proposed a bill practically prohibiting gill-net fishing on the lower river, and the gill-net fishermen proposed a bill prohibiting fish-wheel operations on the upper river. These two measures, each initiated by selfish interests, were submitted to a vote of the people. During the campaign the rival interests presented their arguments, not only through the publicity pamphlet, but through the newspapers and by circular letters. The people of the State gave the matter careful consideration, and, believing that the general welfare required that the fish themselves be protected from extermination, they adopted both bills.

The people having temporarily terminated fishing on the Columbia River, the legislature, which had theretofore failed to do its duty, responded to the popular will and enacted a law which permits fishing within reasonable regulations, but provides opportunity for the fish during closed seasons to reach their natural spawning grounds. I thank Mr. McCall for calling attention to this instance in which the composite citizen, acting under the Initiative, eliminated selfish interests and substituted general welfare.

Similar results are accomplished through the Referendum. Selfish interests are frequently able to influence the individual members of a legislature to such an extent as to secure enactment of laws granting special privileges. On the other hand, there have been innumerable instances in which members of legislatures introduced bills attacking the business interests of large corporations, for the purpose of compelling such corporations to pay for the abandonment or defeat of such bills. In the one case, selfish interests were able to buy legislation for their own benefit and against general welfare; while in the other case corrupt legislators had power to blackmail corporations. Such transactions are impossible where the Referendum is in force, for the people have power to defeat grants of special privileges against general welfare; and if a corporation is unjustly attacked by a blackmailing bill, it can refuse to pay tribute and appeal directly to the people under the Referendum, with full assurance that the people will not give their approval to legislation of that character. I believe every observer of legislative controversies involving the general welfare of state or city will agree that selfish interest frequently dominates individual action, whereas if community action had been possible, the result would have been advantageous to general welfare.

The Initiative affords any citizen who has evolved a solution of a governmental problem an opportunity for demonstration of its merits. Under a system of delegated legislation only, his ideas could be, and quite likely would be, referred to some committee where further action would be prevented through the influence of selfish interest. Where the Initiative exists, he can present his ideas in the definite form of a proposed bill if eight per cent of the legal voters consider it worthy of consideration and sign a petition for its submission to a popular vote.

The system encourages every citizen, however humble his position, to study the problems of government, city and state, and to submit whatever solution he may evolve for the consideration and approval of others. The study of the measures and arguments printed in the publicity pamphlet is of immense educational value. The system not only encourages the development of each individual, but tends to elevate the entire electorate to the plane of those who are most advanced. How different from the system so generally in force which tends to discourage and suppress the individual!

Speaking of the Initiative and Referendum, Mr. McCall says that, ‘In effect, they propose the substitution of direct for representative government, the establishment of the direct action of the people, not merely in selecting their agents, but in framing and executing their laws.’ And again, ‘It is now proposed to abandon the discovery of modern times’ (government by the people, acting not in person, but by representatives chosen by themselves).

In view of the clear declaration of our Initiative and Referendum amendment, that ‘the legislative authority of the state shall be vested in a legislative assembly, but the people reserve to themselves power to propose laws and amendments to the constitution, and to enact or reject the same at the polls,’ my inclination at first was to believe that the writer did not intend to convey the idea that representative government had been ‘abandoned’ and direct government ‘substituted’ therefor; but this liberal construction of his language became impossible when I read the following in the same connection: —

‘Is it for the interest of the individual members of our Society to have the great mass of us pass upon the intricate details of legislation, to execute our laws, and to administer justice between man and man? That I believe to be in substance the question raised by the Initiative, the Referendum and the Recall, as they are now practically applied in at least one of the states of the Union, the example of which is held up as a model to the other states.’

I deny unequivocally that in effect or in substance we in Oregon have abandoned representative government, or that the mass of the people pass upon the intricate details of legislation, execute the laws, or administer justice between man and man. Let us consider the facts. At the last general election the people of Oregon voted upon thirty-two measures. Of these measures, eleven were constitutional amendments, of which four were adopted and seven rejected. Of the twenty-one bills submitted to the people only five were enacted, and sixteen rejected. The result of the direct vote was nine measures adopted. The Oregon legislature held a forty-day session last January, considered seven hundred and twentyfive bills and two hundred and thirtyfive resolutions or memorials. Two hundred and seventy-five of the bills were enacted. Evidently the extent of substitution of direct legislation is indicated by the ratio of nine to two hundred and seventy-five. This is not exactly ‘abandonment.’ of the representative system. Of the relative merits of the two systems I shall say more later, but leave that subject for the present in order to continue the denial of statements quoted above.

I deny that the people of Oregon have executed the laws except through their duly chosen public servants. If the statement quoted is intended to apply to the Recall, I reply by saying that there has been no exercise of the Recall against any state, district, or county officer, though there was talk of recalling a circuit judge. I have no doubt that administrative officers have been influenced to some extent by the fact that they are subject to recall. That is one purpose of the Recall. Experience with public officers from one ocean to the other justifies the belief that some of them will be influenced by the wishes of the men to whom they owe their positions and to whom they are accountable at the end of their terms. Under the former system of machine domination we learned that public officers were frequently influenced by the wishes of the political bosses, regardless of the interests and wishes of the people. If they were influenced by the desires of men who put them into office under the old system, quite likely they are influenced by the wishes of the composite citizen, who gives them their positions under the new. The difference is that individual, selfish interest wielded the influence under the old system, while under the new system the public officer knows that the people as a whole desire only a square deal and seek no special privi leges.

I deny that the mass of the people have been called upon to administer justice between man and man. Our courts have proceeded with their work as quietly and as deliberately as ever, though possibly with less delay. It would be impossible for the people of Oregon to administer justice between man and man in any case, for though they have the power to recall a judge, they have no power to change the decision he has rendered.

Mr. McCall says that ‘the prevailing fault of legislative bodies is political cowardice,’and that‘the mania of the times is too much legislation and the tendency to regulate everybody and everything by artificial enactment.’

Conclusive evidence that has been uncovered in numerous legislative investigations satisfies the people of the country that venality as well as cowardice is one of the faults of legislators. Neither venality nor cowardice can be charged against the voters of a commonwealth except in those instances in which public affairs are so dominated by political bosses that the voter has no opportunity of exercising the right of selection of candidates.

As I have explained on previous occasions, the wholesale bartering of votes in Adams County, Ohio, and Danville, Illinois, may be accounted for by the fact that for years the voters had been accustomed to mark their ballots for one of two candidates, each chosen for them by the operators of the political machine. Having learned by experience that their votes were ineffective to overcome public evils, they decided that they might as well profit by the few dollars that they could secure for their votes, especially since the character of the public service would not be changed thereby. Whenever relieved from the domination of political machines and given opportunity to express an effective choice, the voters of any state will be guilty of neither venality nor cowardice, but will go to the polls and honestly express their opinions upon the questions submitted, and upon their preference as between candidates.

As I have already shown, the last Oregon legislature enacted two hundred and seventy-five laws, while the people under the Initiative and Referendum adopted nine measures. If too much legislation constitutes a mania, as Mr. McCall says, then the evil must be charged to legislatures, and not to the system of direct legislation.

On the whole, laws enacted by the people are more carefully prepared, more widely discussed, and more thoroughly considered than are the acts of a legislature. A bill or proposed constitutional amendment submitted under the Initiative must be filed with the Secretary of State not less than four months before the election. Prior to that time the measure secures publicity through the fact that it must be circulated for the signatures of eight per cent of the voters. After the bills have been filed, the promoters and opponents thereof may file arguments for or against. It is made the duty of the Secretary of State to have a full copy of the title and text of each measure, together with the arguments for and against, printed in a pamphlet, a copy of which must be mailed to every registered voter not less than fifty-five days prior to election. The title of a bill appears in the publicity pamphlet exactly as it will appear upon the ballot. In this way the voter secures the best possible information regarding the provisions of the bills, their merits or defects, and the reason why they should or should not be enacted.

No such opportunity for the study of measures is afforded members of a legislature. The Oregon legislat ure, for instance, is in session only forty days, and members secure printed copies of the bills introduced no sooner than the end of the first week. Very frequently important bills are introduced about the middle of the session and the members have copies of these before them for not more than twenty days. Amendments are frequent, and sometimes these are made as late as the day on which the bill is passed, so that legislators frequently vote upon bills without knowing their real effect.

We had a conclusive demonstration of this in the Oregon legislature of 1903, when the legislature repealed a statute which allowed every householder a tax-exemption of household goods to the value of three hundred dollars. After the legislature adjourned, members were astonished to learn that they had repealed such a law, and, at a special session, called within a year, this statute was reënacted by an overwhelming vote. Not even Mr. McCall will contend that legislation such as this could be ignorantly passed under the Initiative and Referendum. Four months of discussion will, beyond peradventure, disclose any serious fault or defect in any proposed statute submitted under the Initiative.

Some honest opponents of direct legislation base their opposition partly on the fact that a measure submitted under the Initiative is not susceptible of amendment after it has been filed in the office of the Secretary of State. Instead of being cause for criticism, this is one of the strongest reasons for commendation, for we have learned by experience that one of the most common methods by which vicious legislation is secured is to introduce a harmless or a beneficial bill and let it secure a favorable report from a legislative committee, but with a slight amendment inserted therein which entirely changes its character or effect, in some important particular and thereby serves some selfish interest. When it is known that a bill must be enacted or rejected exactly as drawn, the framers of the measure will spend weeks and months in studying the subject and writing the bill in order to have it free from unsatisfactory features.

In actual practice in Oregon almost every proposed bill is submitted to a considerable number of men for criticism and suggestions before its final form is determined upon. The original draft undergoes many amendments, and these are more carefully considered than would be the case if the bill were before a legislature. Knowing that the bill will be subjected to the closest scrutiny of all the people for four months, the framers of the bill, desiring its passage, naturally endeavor to remove every reasonable objection, to make all its provisions perfectly clear, and especially to remove every indication of bad faith. A bill to which there are many serious objections would stand little chance of adoption by a popular vote. When thus drawn and submitted, a bill is in the best possible form, and there is no possibility of its being made the instrument for the enactment of what are commonly called ‘jokers.’

I do not contend that a bill thus drawn will be perfect, for no human work is perfect, but I do assert that it will be much better drawn than the great majority of bills presented to a legislature; and, if adopted, it will bean improvement upon legislation theretofore in force on the same subject. The people of a state will never vote against their own interests, hence they will never vote to adopt a law unless it proposes a change for the improvement of the general welfare. Previous to the last election, each voter had fifty-five days in which to consider thirty-two measures, which, with the arguments for and against, were laid before him in convenient printed form. This gave him an average of nearly two days for the consideration of each measure. Assuming that many of the bills introduced in one House never appear in the other, each member of the Oregon legislature was called upon to consider about five hundred bills in forty days, or over twelve each day, besides being compelled to consider many resolutions, motions, and questions of a political character. I assert that the individual voters of the state, in the quiet of their own homes in the evening, could better consider and decide upon an average of one bill in two days than the members of the legislature, amid the hurry and strife and personal feeling incident to a legislative session, could consider and decide upon an average of twelve bills a day.

It is frequently asserted that the voter in Oregon is required to pass upon thirty-two measures in the few minutes he occupies the booth on election day. Such is not the case. He has several weeks in which to determine how he will vote, and merely takes a few minutes in which to mark his ballot.

In his discussion of the Recall, particularly as applied to judges, Mr. McCall has reiterated a prevailing error as to the practical operation of that feature of popular government. Evidently he has been misled by accepting as true certain statements contained in the President’s veto message of the Arizona statehood bill. He says, for instance, that, when the Recall is invoked, the man whom the people have elected to an office is permitted either to resign in five days or to defend himself in two hundred words upon proceedings to throw him out in disgrace. This statement is incorrect in two particulars. He may neither resign nor defend himself, but may quietly continue in office until his successor has been elected. He has three alternatives: either to resign, to stand for reëlection, or to continue in office and await passively the outcome of the recall proceedings. If he chooses to defend himself, he is not limited to a defense of two hundred words. The two-hundred-word limit is merely upon the length of statement he may make to be printed upon the official ballot. This is merely a summary of his defense. He is at liberty to make such other defense before the people as he may desire.

Moreover the Arizona constitution, to which Mr. McCall refers, requires that the legislature shall provide for the payment of the campaign expenses of any officer attacked under the Recall. The man or men who attack an officer under the Recall must pay the expense of their campaign. The man in office has not only the advantage of his official record, the prestige of his office, the desire of the American voter to give every incumbent of an office a square deal, but he has the further very material advantage of payment of his campaign expenses out of the public treasury. Any officer who is not able to make out a case in his own defense with all these advantages is very probably a fit subject for recall proceedings.

Mr. McCall further states that it would be a matter of no difficulty for the defeated candidate to initiate a recall and practically have the election over again. I challenge the citation of any instance in which experience has demonstrated that this criticism is justified. Experience in politics everywhere has demonstrated that the people admire a ‘ good loser.’ They have contempt for the man who, after he has been beaten in a fair fight refuses to quit.

The recall amendment provides that a recall petition shall not be circulated against any officer until he has actually held his office six months, except that a petition for recall of a member of the legislature may be filed five days after the legislature meets. Since a successful candidate takes office two months after election, and it would ordinarily require a month to circulate a recall petition, it is plain that there would be at least nine months for the subsidence of any personal feeling engendered during a campaign. Obviously a recall as to members of the legislature must be operative while the legislature is in session, to be effective.

Thus assured of an opportunity to demonstrate the character of service he will render, no public servant need fear recall proceedings growing out of the campaign for his election, unless his election was secured by dishonest means. Of course, in such a case, a recall might be filed immediately after the expiration of the six months. This would be brought, not so much by the defeated candidate or his friends, as by citizens in general, whose right it is to have every election conducted fairly and honestly.

The assumption that a recall proceeding is an imposition upon a public officer is not founded on good reason. An individual has no personal right to public office, though some few, who, under delegated government, have bought their offices, may think they have. The office belongs to the people, and they are entitled to have it filled by whomsoever they please. Every employer in private life reserves the right to discharge his employee whenever the service rendered is unsatisfactory.

The same principle should apply to the electorate in the employment of a public servant. In fact, this right would be a matter of understanding and contract where a citizen seeks and accepts a public office with the knowledge that the Recall is one of the laws of his state.

Mr. McCall asserts that where the Recall is in force, ‘the judge, in order to feel secure in his office, would have to consult the popular omens rather than the sources of the law.’ Upon the same reasoning, where the convention system exists with a boss in control, the judge, in order to feel secure in his office, would consult the wishes of the boss rather than the sources of the law. There is this difference in favor of the influence of the Recall — popular influence would be exerted in behalf of the welfare of the majority, whereas the influence of the political boss is exerted in behalf of the interests of a very small minority, which is generally himself or a campaign contributor.

Some people express the fear that the rights of a minority will be disregarded by the tyranny of the majority. They are really most concerned for the perpetuation of special and unjust privileges for the small minority. Neither election nor appointment to a legislative, executive, or judicial office carries coincident personal or official infallibility.

There is very little weight to argument based upon allusion to the democracy of Athens, or to the experience of other ancient nations which made more or less progress toward a popular form of government. In the last two thousand years conditions have greatly changed. Electricity and steam, the telegraph, telephone, railroad, and steamboat have established media of instantaneous intercommunication of ideas, and rapid coöperation of action in the individual units of society.

In less than a decade the people of Oregon have voted upon sixty-four measures. Surely, if the Initiative and Referendum is a destructive system, as its enemies allege, there would be abundant evidence thereof in the recent history of that state; and it should not be difficult for any citizen to produce conclusive and absolutely convincing evidence to that effect. No one has done so or can do so.

Both reason and experience demonstrate the practicability and importance of the Initiative and Referendum. My analysis of the forces con trolling all human action, as set forth in the early paragraphs of this article, proves the impossibility of a community voting against the general welfare. Any person interested in the subject will observe by a study of results in Oregon that this has been demonstrated in that state.1

  1. [ A list of the measures which have been submitted to the people of Oregon in the last four elections, together with the number of votes recorded in each case, will be found at the end of this issue of the Atlantic, pages 143, 144. — THE EDITORS.]