(AP) — Thanks to a rabble-rousing, socialist priest, it’s a milestone year for direct democracy in the U.S. and not just because Ohio voters are circumventing their Republican-controlled Legislature to decide for themselves if they have constitutional abortion rights.
The practice of citizen-originated ballot measures began 125 years ago when South Dakota became the first in the nation to enact a statewide initiative and referendum process. More states followed, and the movement giving voters lawmaking powers grew far bigger than the Rev. Robert W. Haire’s spirited advocacy for it.
The pioneering Catholic priest is an obscure historical figure today. But some still invoke his name in their fight to preserve voters’ ballot measure rights. Others carry on with the advocating, educating and ministering that Haire set into motion — whether they know it or not.
South Dakotans still cherish being able to vote on their state’s laws and constitution — and that’s Haire’s legacy, said Cory Heidelberger, who has led ballot-question campaigns and legally challenged Republican efforts to weaken the process. Nearly 75% of South Dakotans called citizen ballot initiatives critical to the democratic process in a 2021 statewide poll, and almost 62% opposed making it harder.
“It represents for me the fundamental idea of the equal dignity of every human being,” said Heidelberger, who blogs about South Dakota politics.
The people, he said, deserve lawmaking power too: “They’re no better, but they’re no worse than any one legislator sitting in Pierre making a decision."
South Dakota’s initiative and referendum came about during an agrarian populist movement. The political conditions were brief but just right in 1897 for lawmakers to approve it; voters passed it the following year. In a memoir compiled by the state Socialist Party, Haire is credited with writing the amendment itself. (Constitutional amendments by initiative were enacted in 1972.)
Today, residents in about half of U.S. states can put issues like Medicaid expansion and marijuana use to a public vote. Recently it’s Republican lawmakers who have tried to erode the process. Democrats and left-leaning groups locked out of power in Republican-led states are using ballot measures to force votes on popular issues.
In one of 2023's most-watched examples, early voting is underway in Ohio and expected to draw heavier-than-normal turnout. This summer, Ohioans knocked down a Republican-led plan to increase signature requirements and the raise the approval threshold for constitutional amendments, including the abortion one, from 50% to 60%.
“That’s just a version of what we’ve seen from the very beginning, that legislators have always tried to cut it back,” said John Matsusaka, director of the University of Southern California’s Initiative and Referendum Institute.
The politics of using citizen ballot measures are situational. He pointed to Republicans in California and Democrats in Ohio.
“It’s the guys who are out of power that can’t get the time of day from the legislature that think, ‘Well, maybe this is my only recourse?’” Matsusaka said.
In “Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution,” David Schmidt describes the complex U.S. origins, naming Haire as one of the country's first two reformers to propose the idea.
This makes Haire, who was suspicious of politicians, the father of a critically important “escape valve," said Drey Samuelson, Democrat and former chief of staff for retired U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
“If you can’t pass them through the legislature in states that don’t have ballot initiatives, you’re basically done,” said Samuelson, who is helping lead a ballot-initiative campaign for open primaries in South Dakota. He criticized Republicans for trying to weaken the process — something he expects will continue.