Local Initiative and Referendum in the U. S.

by Professor Tari Renner / Illinois Wesleyan University

The initiative and referendum are the central mechanisms for direct democracy in America. While there is increasing media and scholarly attention given to their usage, structure and impact at the state level, there is little more than anecdotal information that exists for initiative and referendum provisions in American local governments. This is despite the fact that one of the few sources of systematic data on instruments of direct democracy at the local level indicates that there have been significant increases over time in their usage and/or presence.

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) conducts a Municipal Form of Government survey every five years (1981, 1986, 1991 and 1996). This survey instrument asks a wide variety of questions about the political structures and their usage within American cities. These questions include items on the initiative, referendum, petition or protest referendum and recall election provisions. The survey is sent to city clerks in all American cities with 2,500 people or more (approximately 7,000 in the 1990s). The city clerks are given at least two opportunities to complete the survey. The total number of responding jurisdictions has ranged from around 4,200 to 5,000 in recent surveys.

The overwhelming majority (nearly 90 percent) of American cities report having some form of referendum procedure. The data, however, indicates that there is little variation in this figure by type of community (region, population size, central city or suburban, etc.). There is, on the other hand, a clear variation in the presence of "non-binding" referendum by region. They are the least likely to be found in southern communities and most likely in New England and Mid-Atlantic cities.

Petition/protest referendum procedures were the least likely to be reported of the provisions for direct democracy in American municipalities. Only 35.7% of responding jurisdictions reported this in 1996 for example. The patterns by type of community indicate that they are disproportionately prevalent in larger cities and in the West and Pacific Coast communities.

Recall elections are reported by a clear majority of cities (69 percent in the most recent 1996 survey). They are most likely to be found in larger, central cities and those in the West and Pacific Coast.

The trends in these response patterns over time indicate that there have been significant increases in the presence of the initiative and recall procedures in American cities. While the percent reporting provisions were stable through the 1991 survey, there were unprecedented increases between 1991 and 1996. The initiative, for example, was reported by 49 percent of communities in 1991 compared to 58 percent in 1996. Those indicating the presence of recall procedures experienced a similar increase over the same period. A total of 58 percent indicated having recall elections in their municipalities in 1991 compared to 69 percent in 1996. There were no significant changes in the percentage of referendum or petition procedures over time.

The existing scholarly data also indicates that only three states do not have provisions for at least some form of direct democracy in their local governments. In addition to demonstrating the importance of initiative, referendum and recall in local political arenas, this point also illustrates the empirical reality that all local governments are considered to be "creatures of the state." So, the state legislature or state constitution determines what the "rules of the game" will be for all local governments within the state.

They may issue "home rule" charters which permit jurisdictions to make their own decisions regarding electoral or policy-making rules (including adopting forms of direct democracy). These points suggest that any systematic analysis of these procedures at the local level must begin with an understanding of what the particular states "permit" or mandate of their local governments. Do the states require or prohibit certain initiative, referendum or recall procedures? How does this vary by type of charter or form of local government? For example, are there different rules for cities, counties, townships, school districts and special districts?

Once some of these "structural issues" and patterns are clarified, we can begin to systematically explore the actual usage and behavioral patterns of direct democracy in American localities.