Undertake an Initiative Campaign
Constitutional and Statutory Provisions
Secretary of State's Initiative and Referendum History
Secretary of State's Initiative and Referendum Election Results
The father of the North Dakota initiative process
was L. A. Ueland of Edgeley, a state legislator who served on the executive
committee of the National Direct Legislation League from its founding in 1896.
If Ueland was the father of the process, however, Katherine King of McKenzie was
the mother. Mrs. King, married to Royal V. King, in 1902 organized a state
chapter of the League. Mrs. King's League won passage of Ueland's I&R bill
through both houses of the legislature in 1907, despite opposition from
Prohibitionists who feared the possibility of an initiative to repeal the
state's anti-liquor amendment.
The 1907 I&R amendment needed to be approved by the
legislature twice, in two successive sessions with an election in between. In
1909 the legislature reversed itself and killed the I&R amendment. Mrs. King and
Ueland pressed on nonetheless, and won the necessary legislative approvals in
1911 and 1913. The I&R amendment finally went to the voters for ratification in
1914 and passed.
The watershed event in North Dakota's century of
statehood was the agrarian revolt of 1915-1916, which spawned the Non-Partisan
League, one of the most successful state-level reform organizations in the
nation's history. In that revolt, which was dramatized in the 1979 movie
Northern Lights, farmers united against an unresponsive state government
controlled by banks, railroads, and big grain dealers.
The League put seven constitutional amendment
initiatives on the 1918 ballot. All seven passed by similar majorities of about
58 percent. Taken together, they brought about a revolutionary change in state
Reducing the number of signatures required for
Forbidding the legislature to exempt any bills from
Abolishing the requirement that proposed
constitutional amendments be approved in two successive legislatures (in favor
of a single approval)
Authorizing the legislature to classify personal
property for purposes of tax exemptions
Authorizing the legislature to impose an acreage tax
on land to insure crops against hail damage
Authorizing the state to issue up to $10 million in
bonds rather than the existing $200,000 limit, allowing mortgages on state
Authorizing the state, counties, and cities to
engage in business activities, thus clearing the way for bills that set up the
state-owned bank, mill, and grain elevator, which continue to operate to the
present day. Considered "socialistic" enterprises by critics, they provided a
model for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority.
Bankers and grain dealers sponsored an initiative
backlash against the state-owned industries in 1920, gaining voter approval of
measures requiring public audits of such industries, banning real estate loans
by the state bank, and limiting state bank deposits to the assets of the state,
rather than including local governments' assets. But North Dakotans in 1921
defeated four initiatives to further restrict the operations of state-owned
industries, including one that would have abolished the state bank outright. In
1922 voters again confirmed their support for the state bank by approving an
initiative doubling the state's bonded indebtedness limit so that the bank could
make more farm loans.
A state record of 18 initiatives qualified for the
ballot in 1932. Among the measures passed by voters were initiatives reducing
property taxes, prohibiting crop mortgages, banning corporations from farming,
reducing salaries of judges and state and local elected and appointed officials,
reducing officials' travel expenses, and abolishing the requirement of
published, public notice regarding auction of land to pay delinquent taxes.
In 1938, North Dakotans passed an initiative
providing for pensions for senior citizens, and in 1940, they approved measures
earmarking sales tax revenues for schools and welfare and increasing funding for
financially distressed schools. In 1944, the voters initiated over $12 million
worth of bonds to match federal funds for highway construction, and in 1948,
they voted to ban parking meters. Notable initiatives passed in the 1950s
include a conflict-of-interest measure prohibiting legislators from doing over
$10,000 worth of business annually with the state or local governments (1954),
and an initiative that set up a $1 million college student loan fund from state
bank profits (1955). In 1962 voters struck a blow for ballot-box freedom by
passing an initiative abolishing the requirement that they publicly state their
party affiliation when they vote.
In 1963 Robert P. McCarney, a Bismarck auto dealer,
sponsored three referendum petitions to block tax increase bills which just been
approved by the legislature. Although the state's voters upheld each of the
bills, McCarney was not about to give up. Years earlier, as chauffeur to
Non-Partisan League Governor (and later U.S. Senator) William ("Wild Bill")
Langer, McCarney had learned the value of tenacity in politics. Over the next 17
years, he sponsored 10 successful petition drives for initiatives or referendums
on tax issues. In 1978 his initiative to lower the North Dakota income tax on
individuals, but raise it for corporations, won - the capstone of his activist
career. It is still said in state government circles that North Dakota's tax
structure is more a product of McCarney than of the legislature.
In 1980, before he was elected to Congress, Byron
Dorgan sponsored an initiative to more than double the tax on oil production
(from 5 percent to 11.5 percent). Despite strong opposition from oil companies,
it passed with 56 percent of the vote.
The other most hotly contested initiative of the
state's history was a 1978 measure to establish a state agency to regulate
health care costs. Sponsored by state Insurance Commissioner Byron Knudsen, it
provoked intense opposition from hospitals' and doctors' organizations, which
raised $175,000 for their effort to oppose it - a huge amount by North Dakota
standards. Voters rejected the initiative by a three to one margin. Since 1978,
numerous other issues have been voted on through the initiative process – term
limits and environmental regulation – to name a few. However, even though North
Dakota ranks as one of the top five most prolific initiative states since 1904,
not a single statewide initiative has qualified for the ballot since 1998.
This state history is based
David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.