The Battle over the Initiative and Referendum in Massachusetts (1918)
On Election Day in 1918, Massachusetts voters would have to decide not only on their preferred candidates for governor and U.S. Senator, but also whether or not to approve 19 proposed amendments to the state constitution. By far the most controversial of these would establish a state process of initiative and referendum. The initiative would empower private citizens to write both laws and constitutional amendments, and pass them, even over the opposition of a majority of the state legislature. The referendum would allow voters to rescind laws that the legislature had passed. Behind this proposed amendment lay nearly three decades of agitation, both in the state and nationally, for "direct democracy" in America. The initiative and referendum-or "I&R" for short-had become a key demand of progressivism, the diverse movement for economic, social, and political reform that swept the nation for nearly two decades after 1900. By 1918, 19 states, mostly in the West, and hundreds of counties and municipalities, including a number of cities in Massachusetts, had adopted some form of I&R. Opposition to a statewide I&R provision in Massachusetts, however, remained fierce. Opponents claimed it would threaten the rights of minorities, give undue influence to small but well organized interest groups, and place needless burdens on voters. Proponents urged the people to empower themselves and take back control of the state from the "invisible government" of party bosses and corporate lobbyists. Now, with the election approaching, Massachusetts voters would have to decide.