The debate over civil unions (Act No. 91, 2000) touched on whether the proposed legislation should be submitted to a popular vote. Under Sections 2 and 6, Chapter II of the Vermont Constitution, only the General Assembly has the authority to enact legislation. To transfer this authority to a direct vote of the people would therefore be unconstitutional.
The only referendum mechanism provided under the Constitution is in Section 72, Chapter II, which provides for submitting proposed constitutional amendments to a vote of the people, adoption requiring a majority vote (language adopted in 1870).
The 1999-2000 General Assembly was not the first to debate whether, and how, to seek popular expression on closely divided and divisive issues. Using a couple of different mechanisms, twenty-nine questions have been put to a popular vote in seventeen referenda since the 1700s.
The scope of this presentation is limited to statewide referenda exclusive of ratification votes on proposed constitutional amendments. It does not include town- or county-level referenda, which have been used to address issues such as town versus district schools, the use of oleomargarine, allowing the sale and use of alcohol in a town, and whether to have a municipal forest.