Petition and Referendum

"The cure for the ills of Democracy is more Democracy."

Jane Addams

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Throughout his public life, Gov. Pat Quinn has been a believer in grassroots democracy through initiative petition and referendum. He greatly respects the efforts of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, who promoted direct democracy and putting more power in the hands of the people of Illinois more than 100 years ago.

Gov. Edward F. Dunne was a great champion of initiative and referendum. Gov. Dunne was the only man to serve as both Mayor of Chicago (1905-1907) and Governor of Illinois (1913-1917).

In 1913, his first year in office, Gov. Dunne proposed a constitutional amendment to establish the power of initiative petition and binding referendum in Illinois.

Under Gov. Dunne’s proposal, 8% of Illinois electors would be able to sign a petition for a bill to be put before the Illinois General Assembly. If within a year legislature did not take action on that bill, the original bill would go to on the ballot for the people to decide.

As described by historian Richard Allen Morton in his book Justice and Humanity: Edward F. Dunne, Illinois Progressive :

High noon, or rather high midnight, came on 13 May 1913. In a session lasting well into the night (the House Journal records adjournment at 11:59 p.m., while the newspapers insist events continued until about 1:00 a.m.), the House engaged in a political drama that in a real sense was the climax of the Forty-eighth General Assembly. The antagonists were the Republicans, who had caucused an hour before the chamber had convened that morning and agreed to support a series of amendments. All but one of those were relatively minor, but one, to be introduced by Representative Morton D. Hull (Cook County-R) was a genuine threat.

In essence, this so-called Hull Substitute would predicate the passage of any proposal through either the initiative or referendum upon a majority of total registered voters rather than a majority of those actually voting on the proposition. The effect would be to transform a nonvote on any particular matter, a frequent enough occurrence under the Public Opinion Law, into a no vote. The formula had been discussed earlier in the Senate, but it had been overwhelmingly dismissed. Now the House Republicans pledged not to compromise in the full knowledge that it was completely unacceptable to Governor Dunne and his supporters.

Shortly after ten that evening, the cascade of words trickled to a halt, and the Hull Substitute was introduced. Solidly supported by the Republicans, it was nonetheless tabled by a margin of 83 to 63. Speaker McKinley then tried to unilaterally force a vote upon the resolution. So much protest resulted that he was forced to allow the introduction of ten more amendments. Each of those were successfully defeated. Eventually, at some time around or after midnight, the roll call on the initiative and referendum commenced As it ended, it appeared it had exactly the 103, or two-thirds vote, required to send it for final approval to the voters. A cheer went up, but the elation quickly died when Representative Hubert Kilens (Cook County-D) rose before McKinley could declare the measure passed and changed his vote to the negative column. Confusion prevailed, and the administration Democrats just managed to table the resolution for later consideration.

After opponents of the initiative process tried to alter the initiative amendment to make it harder for the people to legislate for themselves, the measure finally came to a vote on May 13, 1913. It had exactly 103 votes – the 2/3 majority needed to pass. Just before the measure was declared passed, Rep. Hubert Kilens changed his vote from yes to no. The initiative measure was tabled, and Illinois voters did not have a chance to vote in 1914 on whether full-fledged initiative and binding referendum should become part of our state Constitution.

In 1902 and 1910, Illinois voters had overwhelmingly supported initiative and binding referendum in two statewide advisory referendums.

On December 16, 1970, Illinois voters ratified a new state constitution which included Article XIV, Section 3, a constitutional initiative for amending part of the legislative article (Article IV). This initiative power limited Illinois voters to only initiating amendments pertaining to “structural and procedural subjects” contained in the legislative article of the constitution.

Amendments to Article IV of this Constitution may be
proposed by a petition signed by a number of electors equal
in number to at least eight percent of the total votes cast
for candidates for Governor in the preceding gubernatorial
election. Amendments shall be limited to structural and
procedural subjects contained in Article IV. A petition shall
contain the text of the proposed amendment and the date of
the general election at which the proposed amendment is to be
submitted, shall have been signed by the petitioning electors
not more than twenty-four months preceding that general
election and shall be filed with the Secretary of State at
least six months before that general election. The procedure
for determining the validity and sufficiency of a petition
shall be provided by law. If the petition is valid and
sufficient, the proposed amendment shall be submitted to the
electors at that general election and shall become effective
if approved by either three-fifths of those voting on the
amendment or a majority of those voting in the election.
(Source: Illinois Constitution.)

Since the ratification of the new constitution in 1970, only one constitutional amendment has been successfully enacted by this limited initiative petition and referendum power -- the 1980 Cutback Amendment which reduced the size of the House of Representatives from 177 members to 118 and required House members to run in single-member districts.

Illinois has been a state since 1818. In almost 200 years, there has been only one time where Illinois voters have had the opportunity to vote on a binding statewide referendum issue that they themselves petitioned onto the ballot.

In the 21st Century, Illinois voters deserve a full-fledged initiative power giving the people the right to vote on binding referendum issues.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia give their voters the power of initiative and binding referendum: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

It may be 104 years after Gov. Edward F. Dunne nearly succeeded in putting initiative and referendum into the Illinois constitution, but it’s never too late to “let the will of the people be the law of the land.”