Oregon Constitutional Amendments Over the Decades

Voters immediately used the new tool that blacksmith William U'Ren had so skillfully forged for them. Many reform ideas that had persisted in society for decades but had been blocked in the legislature by powerful interests now enjoyed real chances of becoming law. Temperance activists soon had measures on the ballot. Women's suffrage advocates flooded the ballot in the first several cycles of direct legislation. Persistence proved vital for both efforts as women soon became pivotal in many elections after casting their first votes in 1914. Following the initial surge of initiatives during the reform-minded Progressive Era, use of the initiative ebbed and flowed depending on the times. By the 1990s a potent resurgence of the process would have a profound influence on government in Oregon.

Women and Minorities

A cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt
President Teddy Roosevelt took a leading role in the Progressive Era. Among other reforms he championed, Roosevelt fought against corporate monopolies and for consumer and environmental protections. Enlarge image.
One of the first initiative measures to go before voters sought to give women the vote. But while many voters were in a reform mood, they weren't quite ready to see women voters. Indeed, advocates of women's suffrage faced powerful foes. Saloon and liquor interests feared women voters would provide enough votes to enact prohibition. A 1906 suffrage initiative was defeated by a vote of 47,075 to 36,902. But the new direct legislation process put no limits on the number of times reformers could go back to voters with the same issue. Once again the measure made it to the ballot in 1908 and again voters dismissed it, this time by a larger margin of 58,670 to 36,858. Undaunted, supporters tried a compromise measure in 1910 that would give the vote only to female taxpayers but that vote went down by a similar amount. Finally, voters narrowly approved women's suffrage in 1912 by a vote of 61,265 to 57,104. After decades of struggle, 79-year-old women's rights leader Abigail Scott Duniway handwrote the proclamation that Governor Oswald West signed to finally give half the population the vote. Footnote 1

Minorities also benefited, eventually, from the initiative process. The provision in the 1857 Oregon Constitution prohibiting blacks and mulattoes from living in Oregon—rendered moot by the U.S. Constitution in the wake of the Civil War—would remain in the Oregon Constitution until voters finally repealed it in 1926. The next year Oregon voters repealed the constitutional prohibition on blacks, mulattoes and "Chinamen" from voting. They had defeated a similar repeal measure by less than 700 votes out of more than 200,000 cast in a 1916 election. Footnote 2


A cartoon showing an axe breaking up barrels
A Women's Christian Temperance Union axe breaks through a door in an attack on the liquor industry, represented by various Oregon agricultural products that would be harmed by prohibition. This portion of a 1913 cartoon is from a Salem Welfare League broadside opposing prohibition. (Colorized. Original image courtesy Oregon State Library subject vertical files on Prohibition)
Saloon and liquor interests had reason to worry about giving women the vote. Both sides of the liquor debate offered well-worn arguments. Supporters of prohibition envisioned a society with less crime, domestic abuse, neglect and accidents. They predicted that, with the proper guidance, people whose lives had revolved around saloons and drinking would be transformed into better spouses, parents and workers. Freed from the debilitating effects of alcohol, these people would rise to a higher moral plane and become more productive citizens. As a result, the nation would grow stronger. Industries and individuals standing to lose from prohibition mounted a spirited counteroffensive. They cited the economic hardship that would come to farmers of such liquor-related crops as wheat, potatoes and hops. Owners and employees of breweries, distilleries, saloons and associated businesses also foresaw doom. Some opponents predicted that a criminal element and black markets would fill the void left by the loss of legitimate businesses related to liquor. Footnote 3

A women's suffrage poster
Activists other states worked for women's suffrage in the years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally gave women the vote nationally in 1920. (Image courtesy Ohio Historical Society)
In their first general election, female voters proved decisive to the 1914 passage of statewide prohibition. Five years prior to national prohibition, the voters of Oregon passed an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale or advertisement of intoxicating liquor. In 1915 the legislature, via the Anderson Act, enacted legislation implementing statewide prohibition. The law became effective on January 1, 1916. Less than a year later, in November of 1916, the state's voters defeated a proposed state constitutional amendment to permit the sale of beer. In 1917 the Oregon Supreme Court upheld prohibition in a challenge to the law's constitutionality. Meanwhile, an unrelated measure on the 1914 ballot once again proved the critical role of women voters to the new political reality. Out of over 200,000 votes cast, women helped pass an amendment abolishing the death penalty in Oregon by a mere 157 votes. The balloting on the issue in 1912—before women could vote—was not even close, going down to defeat by nearly 23,000 votes. Footnote 4

The Ebbs and Flows of the Oregon System

Over the decades, the use of direct legislation varied depending on the mood of the times. Predictably, the number of measures that made the ballot in the early years was high as Oregonians unleashed their pent-up ideas for reform. At the height of the Progressive Era in 1912, the state's voters found 37 measures on the ballot—still a record. Interest soon waned, however, as many succumbed to voter fatigue from facing such a large number of measures. They also expressed frustration with not understanding the complicated issues involved in the measures. Aggravating the problem, ballot titles were limited to 25 words and measure explanations could not exceed 100 words, thus leaving many unanswered questions. In an early backlash against the system, some people simply chose to vote no on all initiatives. The 1914 election saw only four out of 29 measures pass. Footnote 5

By the end of the Progressive Era, the increasingly apparent limitations of the system caused many voters to be cynical about the tools of initiative and referendum. Use was low in the politically conservative decade after World War I. But desperate Depression Era voters returned to initiatives as a possible way to lessen their misery. The post-World War II period saw a brief spike after the relative dormancy caused by the war. But the 1950s brought another conservative and patriotic period that suppressed use. Oregon's population growth of 40% in the 1940s contributed to the decline in initiative use since it became increasingly logistically difficult for low-budget citizen groups to gather the required number of signatures to make the ballot. The long trend continued into the 1960s when Oregonians voted on only seven initiatives during the entire decade but use rebounded in the 1970s with 17 initiatives and continued its climb in the 1980s when 32 initiatives made the ballot. Footnote 6

A Modern Resurgence

A photo of Bill Sizemore
Bill Sizemore was one of several initiative activists wielding power in the 1990s.
A photo of John Kitzhaber
Democratic Governor Kitzhaber was often forced to play defense against busy initiative activists during the 1990s. (Oregon State Archives image)
Finally, the 1990 passage of the Measure 5 property tax limitation kicked off a contentious period that extended into the 2000s, with large numbers of polarizing economic and social measures making it to the ballot. Activists such as Don McIntire and Bill Sizemore tapped a deep vein of voter suspicion and discontent with government. Sizemore formed Oregon Taxpayers United in 1994 and used a skillful mix of political organization, fund-raising and public relations to place numerous measures on the ballot. In the process, Democratic establishment politicians, such as Governor John Kitzhaber, were forced to play defense, often considering it a victory simply to block some of the initiatives. Footnote 7

By 1998 Sizemore parlayed his mastery of the system into winning the Republican Party nomination to challenge Kitzhaber for governor. Echoing many themes from his initiative campaigns, Sizemore ran on a platform calling for smaller government and no new taxes. But while many Oregonians supported his brand of populism outside of the government, most were unwilling to put him in the governor's office, sending him to a resounding defeat. Footnote 8 Meanwhile, political commentator Russell Sadler complained,

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  1. David D. Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989) 264; Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon Election History Section (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 291-292.
  2. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon Election History Section (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 294-296.
  3. "Prohibition in Oregon, The Vision and the Reality," Oregon State Archives Web Site, viewed July 19, 2007. 
  4. Ibid.; David D. Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989) 264.
  5. David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 131.
  6. David D. Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989) 264-265.
  7. David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 274-275.
  8. Ibid.
  9. "Sadler's Sense: M​easure 45, The Way We Never Were," West by Northwest.org Online Magazine, viewed July 19, 2007.