The name Wisconsin is practically
synonymous with Progressivism, yet this state has never had a statewide
initiative and referendum process. Indeed, it is one of only three states where
voters turned down their opportunity to get it (Texas and Rhode Island are the
others). The circumstances were as follows.
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.
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 I&R amendment finally passed both houses in the 1911-1912
legislature 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, the 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
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
See David Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot