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By the Numbers: Direct democracy across time 

click to enlarge Sheffield Nelson image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Sheffield Nelson at the secretary of state's office with petitions bearing signatures sufficient in number — 69,717 on 4,650 pages — to put a gas severance tax increase on the November ballot.

The recent flurry of activity around a series of proposed ballot initiatives led some to suggest that direct democracy may well be coming into its own in Arkansas politics. At this writing, it appears that three of those citizen-proposed initiatives could join a number of legislatively proposed measures on the November ballot (UPDATE: Now only one remains in play). It therefore makes sense to provide a brief look at the use of direct democracy across time in Arkansas.

While most all states allow voters to participate in policy making when legislatures send proposals to them for review, Arkansas is one of 24 states that allow citizens to place items on the ballot for consideration by voters through the petition process. Such proposals can take three forms: constitutional amendments, initiated acts or referenda on laws already passed by the legislature. (Of course, the recall only found in city elections in Arkansas is a cousin of the initiative/referendum.) Arkansas is one of only three southern states with this mechanism. Moreover, the other two southern states — Mississippi and Florida — are places where the tools of direct democracy have relatively rarely been employed. In Mississippi, the percentage of voters' signatures that must be gained is significantly greater than in Arkansas; in Florida, the practice is relatively new and a supermajority of votes cast is necessary to allow the measures to go into effect.

The Populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw direct democracy as a way for "the little man" to have a voice in the legislative process and the Progressives of the early 20th century contended that taking total decision-making power away from legislative bodies could lessen the influence of special interests and reduce corruption in politics generally. These two movements — both of which arguably had more traction in Arkansas than in most other southern states —therefore merged in advocating for the initiative and referendum. Direct democracy in Arkansas was the brainchild of progressive governor George W. Donaghey who got the legislature to place it on the ballot in 1910. Populist hero William Jennings Bryan came to Arkansas in the days leading up to the vote and gave 55 speeches over 5 days, capturing the ears of between 75,000 and 125,000 prospective voters. While the measure passed easily, that vote was mired in legal controversy for the decade that followed. Ultimately, a new proposal was ratified in 1920 and finally became enshrined after another series of court battles.

Around the country, initiatives vary in the portion of voters' signatures that must be captured on petitions and also vary in the limitations placed on the legislature to overturn or alter these votes of the people. A 2004 analysis of all initiative processes ranked Arkansas's as quite friendly to initiative proponents — it is less difficult to qualify a measure for the ballot in Arkansas than in all but a few states, and Arkansas is second only to California in the degree that our process protects the measure, once passed, from later legislative tinkering. Thus, all things being equal, initiatives should be more likely in Arkansas than in other states. As is often the case, Arkansas defies such expectations and has been less likely to see the petition process used than in other similarly situated states.

In the years just after the creation of the new policymaking device, Arkansas's ballot became a lengthy one as activists used the new tools regularly. As late as 1938, seven petition-initiated amendments and acts joined four measures sent forward by the legislature on the general election ballot. (Constitutionally, the legislature may send forward three constitutional amendments and other referred acts in a given election.) The table below shows that the process was employed fairly regularly in the 1940s and 1950s in the state. Moreover, the passage rate for citizen-inspired amendments and acts was higher than for those sent forward by the legislature.

Decade Number of proposals referred by General Assembly Number of proposals through petition process Passage rate of legislatively referred proposals Passage rate of proposals through petition process Overall passage rate
1940s 13 22 38.5% 50% 45%
1950s 11 18 44.5% 50% 48.3%
1960s 13 13 15.4% 30.8% 23.1%
1970s 8 5 75% 20% 50%
1980s 13 11 76.9% 36.4% 58.3%
1990s 15 6 60% 83.3% 66.7%
2000s 12 8 83.3% 50% 70%

After the 1950s, however, the use of direct democracy in Arkansas became less common. While there was a dip in the practice nationally in the 1960s and early 1970s, following California's (in)famous Proposition 13 in 1978 there has been a huge comeback for direct democracy nationally, but not in Arkansas. Additionally, the passage rate for those proposals that did go to the people plummeted through the 1980s as the passage rate for proposals sent by the General Assembly rose significantly. Indeed, a proposal sent forward by the legislature has not failed since a 2004 attempt to lengthen Arkansas's term limits. Proposals brought to voters through the petition process also have had a good couple of decades (despite their relatively small numbers).

Because the signature levels are relatively low in Arkansas, because the costs of gathering signatures is slightly lower in Arkansas than in most other direct democracy states, and because two-party politics in Arkansas is likely to lead to legislative impasses, there is some likelihood that a rebirth of direct democracy in Arkansas may well happen in the coming election cycles. The fate of the measures on the ballot in 2012 are likely to provide insight into the viability of the process in the state.

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