Montana Viewpoint
Making laws by popular demand

September 27, 2004

On this year’s general election ballot there are four statewide ballot questions to be decided. While the issues they concern are important and interesting, it’s the method by which Montanans are able to pass laws independent of their elected legislators that’s even more important.

The citizen initiative is an example of direct democracy rather than representative democracy. In representative democracy we elect people to pass laws; in direct democracy the citizens make the laws themselves. Like everything else that expands the democratic process, the initiative and referendum provision was won by struggle; it was not a gift.

The path to the initiative process in America began in the 1870s through the formation of farmers groups opposed to the harsh treatment imposed on them by financial institutions. Industrial conditions brought working people’s organizations into the fray, and with the publicity gained through the writings of the “muckrakers”—journalists who wrote about the seamy underside of American industry—the Progressive movement was created, with Teddy Roosevelt as its champion.

The central issue was the control of the national and state governments by giant industrial Trusts like the Meatpackers (Swift and Armour), Railroads (Vanderbilt’s New York Central), and Oil (John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil). 

In Montana the industrial culprits were the Montana Power Company and the Amalgamated Copper Company—the “ACM”—which evolved into the Anaconda Company. The ACM not only had a bought and paid for legislature, it controlled the news by owning every major Montana newspaper.

Montana was the fourth of 24 states to adopt a statewide initiative process. In 1906 the citizenry placed enough pressure on the legislature to cause it to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot granting the right of the citizens to use the initiative process. The amendment was approved by a six to one margin.

The first ballot measures didn’t appear until 1912 and they all expanded the citizens’ role in making governmental decisions; one of them was to limit campaign contributions to political candidates; another for the election of United States senators by the citizens, not the by the legislature.

These were heady times for democracy. By getting enough voters in a certain number of political jurisdictions to sign a petition, citizens could bypass the corporate dominated legislatures completely, and write their own laws. Getting the news out in Montana, however, was more problematic because the ACM newspapers still controlled the press.

Ironically, the initiative process, created to empower the electorate, is now also used by corporations to make laws. This is made even easier by a new political industry which will get the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot by using paid signature gatherers. So now, the very process that was created to strip corporations of political dominance is now sometimes used by corporations to strip the citizens of theirs

A law created by initiative, is still only a law, and can be modified by the legislature or another initiative. This creates emotions in the electorate ranging from frustration to fury. Sometimes there is a necessity for the legislature to change the law passed by initiative if it conflicts with or contradicts other laws already on the books. At other times legislators try to change the law created by initiative simply because they don’t like it.

Such was the attempt by the last legislature to overturn the citizen passed law banning game farms; a debate which occasioned one legislator to argue that, “just because the people passed it doesn’t mean they were right.” The legislator was, of course, inadvertently also referring to the very same people who elected her.

It was a method of  bypassing the legislature that was needed sorely at the time, and is still valuable today, even though some view it as being abused by out-of-state interests. There are also concerns that the public is not being fully informed on important aspects of the proposed law, and ought not to be voting on it. But then the same can be said about how well the public is informed about candidates for public office.

Gaining the ability to create laws by bypassing the legislature was a milestone in expanding the democratic process. It may not always work well, but it works well enough to keep it.

Or, as Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government except [for] all those others that have been tried from time to time.”

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620