fight for I&R in Illinois began in 1897, when 250 delegates met in Chicago to
form the Direct Legislation Union. Encouraged by this organization, the state
Democratic Party endorsed I&R, and governor John Peter Altgeld endorsed it in a
Labor Day speech in 1899.
The state legislature, seeking to defuse the I&R
agitation without giving voters any real lawmaking power, passed a "Public
Opinion Law" in 1901 which allowed citizens to petition to put non-binding
advisory questions on state or city ballots. It restricted this initiative power
further by setting the signature requirement at 10 percent of registered voters
for statewide measures, and a nearly impossible 25 percent for local measures.
The initiative advocates reorganized as the
Referendum League of Illinois and elected Dr. Maurice F. Doty of Chicago as
their leader. The League employed the advisory petition as a means for citizens
to demand real I&R lawmaking rights. The first two advisory initiatives on the
state ballot called for state and local I&R. Both propositions received 83
percent of the vote – a landslide - on November 4, 1902.
In 1904 the League sponsored a statewide advisory
initiative calling for primary elections to replace nominating conventions,
which passed by a large majority. The League put more advisory initiatives on
the state ballot in the following years: a measure calling for the enactment of
a law to restrict corrupt political practices was passed in 1910 by a margin of
422,000 to 122,000, and a measure to shorten the long, complicated election
ballots was also approved. However, the legislature did not respond to the
people’s wishes except to their demand for primary elections.
The League put a measure calling for I&R on the
ballot a second time in 1910. Leaders in this campaign included Harold L. Ickes,
who later became secretary of the interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and
suffragist Dr. Anna E. Blount. Illinois voters again demanded I&R, this time by
a resounding 78 percent, but the legislature again ignored the people's wishes.
In the four decades following World War II, only one
advisory initiative qualified for the state ballot: a measure calling for tax
reduction, sponsored by Governor James R. Thompson in 1978. Thompson, running
for re-election, was attempting to capitalize on the nationwide popularity of
California's tax-cutting Proposition 13, which passed in June of that year.
Illinois voters approved the measure and re-elected Thompson, but no tax cuts
At the local level, the earliest major I&R battle in
Illinois began in 1901 between Progressives and the "traction trust," as the
price-gouging, politician-bribing streetcar companies were known. In his book
Altgeld’s America, Ray Ginger gives a detailed account of this convoluted
campaign. Between 1902 and 1907, Chicagoans voted on five separate ballot
measures calling for city takeover of the streetcar lines. The voters
consistently endorsed municipal ownership, but were ultimately forced to settle
for a compromise that delayed this goal for 20 years and set up a system of city
regulation in the interim.
At the state constitutional convention in 1920,
Progressives waged an unsuccessful battle for the passage of a statewide I&R
amendment. Since then, little was done to promote the initiative process until
the campaigns by the Coalition for Political Honesty in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1980, the first and only “binding” initiative
appeared on Illinois’s ballot. The initiative reduced the size of the state
legislature from 177 members to 118 members. It passed overwhelmingly.
Due to the fact that the Illinois initiative process
is so limited and so difficult, many initiative scholars don’t even count it as
an initiative state.
This state history is based on research found in
David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.