Expansion of Direct Democracy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

New measures increased the political tools of direct citizen involvement in government in the United States.

Summary of Event

Although the Declaration of Independence asserts that all “men” are created equal, and, in later years, Abraham Lincoln movingly spoke of government “of, by, and for” the people, there was for many years a gap between such sentiments and political realities. Admittedly, by 1890 the franchise in the United States included all male citizens (women were excluded except in a few western states), but even the enfranchised found their prerogatives circumscribed: They were unable to vote directly for their U.S. senators, and they lacked legal methods to force recalcitrant legislatures to take specific action or to rid themselves of unsuitable elected public officials before those officials’ terms ended. Clearly something had to be done to make government at all levels more responsive to the will of the people. Democracy;direct (U.S.) Progressive movement Direct democracy [kw]Expansion of Direct Democracy (June 2, 1902-May 31, 1913) [kw]Direct Democracy, Expansion of (June 2, 1902-May 31, 1913) [kw]Democracy, Expansion of Direct (June 2, 1902-May 31, 1913) Democracy;direct (U.S.) Progressive movement Direct democracy [g]United States;June 2, 1902-May 31, 1913: Expansion of Direct Democracy[00500] [c]Government and politics;June 2, 1902-May 31, 1913: Expansion of Direct Democracy[00500] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 2, 1902-May 31, 1913: Expansion of Direct Democracy[00500] Cleveland, Grover Guggenheim, Simon La Follette, Robert M. U’Ren, William

The Progressive movement Progressive movement provided the vehicle for change as it initially sought to bring about reforms on the municipal and state levels. Among those responsible for reform were Wisconsin’s Robert M. La Follette and the now virtually forgotten William U’Ren of Oregon, who has been described as the father of direct democracy. They were joined in their attempts to alter state government by hordes of urban reformers who realized that cities are so tied to their states that correcting fully the basic problems of the former would require changing the latter as well.

In one respect the burden was eased by an earlier reform, the Australian (or secret) ballot, Secret ballot the ramifications of which were just beginning to be recognized fully. This new form of voting replaced a system under which the political parties and independent candidates printed different-colored ballots and distributed them to the voters, who then deposited their selected ballots in the proper boxes under the watchful eyes of their employers’ representatives or the local political boss. Obviously, the old system protected those in power. Fraud, bribery, and corruption were rampant. In an attempt to end these evils, Massachusetts adopted the secret ballot in 1888. Through the efforts of such individuals as Grover Cleveland, the system was used nationwide by the election of 1910. Additionally, many Progressive states enacted corrupt-practices laws and limited the amount of money candidates could spend. Similar federal laws followed.

The early twentieth century also saw the election of the first great reform governor when La Follette bested the ruling Republican machine in Wisconsin. During his years as governor, 1901-1906, he transformed that state into a Progressive commonwealth, a “laboratory of democracy.” One of his major accomplishments was to give voters increased control over the nomination of candidates for public office. On May 23, 1903, Wisconsin held the first statewide primary to select those who would run in the general election. Primary elections The primary abolished the old boss-dominated party caucus that had previously chosen the candidates.

La Follette’s actions seemed to trigger a chain reaction across the West. In 1904 a young reformer, Joseph W. Folk, smashed the unusually corrupt machine running Missouri to become governor. Slowly but surely, traditional frontier democracy, which had been lost in the Gilded Age, reasserted itself as some states enfranchised women and almost all enacted fundamental political reforms. Nowhere was this trend more apparent than in Oregon, home of the little-known William U’Ren, who indirectly affected national political life as did few of his more famous contemporaries. U’Ren, a blacksmith turned newspaper editor and lawyer, never held a major political office, yet because of his ability to marshal public opinion, he became the unofficial fourth branch of Oregon’s government.

Robert M. La Follette.

(Library of Congress)

U’Ren first grew interested in direct democracy in the 1890’s, after reading of its use in Switzerland, and thereafter he spent a large part of his time working to introduce it into Oregon and the rest of the nation. Oregon adopted the initiative Initiative and referendum Referendum on June 2, 1902, the direct primary in 1904, and the recall in 1910, thereby putting direct democracy into practice. Direct democracy;initiative Direct democracy;referendum Initiative and referendum made it possible for the electorate, with a majority vote, to pass laws when the legislature was unable or unwilling to do so and to veto unpopular legislation. Recall Recall Direct democracy;recall allowed the voters to remove an elected official from office promptly if a majority of them were displeased with the person’s conduct. This device was most often adopted in states west of the Mississippi, where its threat was generally sufficient to bring officials into line. Initiative and referendum, being less tinged with “radicalism” than recall, were usually adopted by the more conservative eastern states.

Another drive that occurred simultaneously was aimed at amending the U.S. Constitution to allow a direct vote for U.S. senators. The Constitution provided for the election of senators by state legislatures, as a means of removing the Senate from direct control by the “rabble.” By the late nineteenth century, however, the office of U.S. senator had become an item to be purchased like a loaf of bread. In 1907, Simon Guggenheim shocked the nation by publicly declaring what he had spent to gain the office in Colorado.

As a stronghold of special privilege, the Senate had opposed and often thwarted Progressive measures such as tariff revision, the abolition of child labor, and revision of the method for selecting U.S. senators. Realizing that passage of a constitutional amendment was out of the question, several western states began holding primary elections to select Senate nominees. In some states, the legislatures were bound to abide by the decision of the voters. In 1912, with twenty-nine states using this device to circumvent the Constitution and public pressure for change mounting, the Senate reluctantly yielded and submitted an amendment to the states. Official confirmation of the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, Seventeenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) providing for direct election of senators, came on May 31, 1913.


With the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, all of the major political reforms proposed by the Progressives had been accomplished. The responsibilities of the electorate had been dramatically enlarged. Control over the quality of government was now in the hands of the voters. The only question remaining was how the voters would exercise their new powers.

Over the years since 1913, Americans have developed two opposing views regarding the answer to this question. Critics of the initiative and referendum see these tools of direct democracy as increasingly monopolized by special interests that have the money to spend on signature gathering (to get initiatives on the ballot) and television advertising (to manipulate public opinion). Many also view the initiative process as a threat to public budgets. In contrast, those who champion the right of the voters to take direct action assert that the initiative and referendum make state politicians more responsive to the people and give political outsiders a point of access to the system. Democracy;direct (U.S.) Progressive movement Direct democracy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowler, Shaun, and Todd Donovan. Demanding Choices: Opinion, Voting, and Direct Democracy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. An examination of how voters make decisions in direct referenda. The authors suggest that although direct democracy has some failings, the voters’ ability to make intelligent decisions about complex policy issues is not necessarily one of them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowler, Shaun, Todd Donovan, and Caroline J. Tolbert, eds. Citizens as Legislators: Direct Democracy in the United States. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998. Examines direct democracy in the United States in the late twentieth century to see if it has lived up to the expectations of the reformers of the early part of the century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronin, Thomas E. Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. The tools of direct democracy are reviewed in this illustrated book. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, Eric F. Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952. Highly readable general account of the various democracy reform movements, their goals and accomplishments, from Populism to the New Deal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F. D. R. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955. Provides a brilliant analysis of Progressivism and its leaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">La Follette, Robert M. Autobiography. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1911. Introduces the reader to the thoughts and career of one of the earliest and most important political reformers of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mowry, George E. The California Progressives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. Examines the struggles of California Progressives against the Southern Pacific Railroad in their effort to make state government responsive to the will of the majority.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nye, Russel B. Midwestern Progressive Politics, 1870-1958. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959. A well-documented study of reform and Progressivism in eleven midwestern states. Includes extensive bibliographical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidt, David D. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. A history of the introduction of the ballot initiative. Includes bibliography and index.

Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary Election Law

Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona Become U.S. States

Republican Congressional Insurgency

Wilson Is Elected U.S. President

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

Republican Resurgence Ends America’s Progressive Era

Categories: History