Statewide Referendum: An Overview

Prior to reapportionment of the Vermont house in 1965, referenda were occasionally used to bridge the disparity among municipal populations that resulted in minority control of the legislative. For example, in the 1890s representatives from towns with populations under 935 represented 20% of Vermont’s population but wielded a legislative majority.

Under sufficient political pressure the legislature would call for a referendum to address issues whose popular support ran counter to town opposition. The temperance referenda of 1853 and 1903 are examples, though the clearest case is provided by the 1914 to1916 debate over adopting a primary system.

Referenda can reveal regional, as well as town, demographic splits within Vermont. See, for example, the 1936 Green Mountain Parkway and the 1969 constitutional convention referenda. Though the referendum is celebrated as the embodiment of direct democracy, referenda are fashioned and responded to within political contexts. The very first referendum in 1785 demonstrated support for full reimbursement to early settlers alienated from their land through faulty titles. Despite the vote, the legislature subsequently rejected full reimbursement, opting instead for lesser payments. The second referendum in 1787 was designed to derail passage of fiscal policies a legislative minority could not block, a design it freely acknowledged. Forced to bow to demands for a primary system, the 1912 legislators designed the referendum question to fragment primary support. They then claimed that no primary system received majority approval of the voters. The 1914 rejection of a new state building was immediately followed by another law for the building, albeit at a lower appropriation. A 1976 advisory referendum was used to avoid a gubernatorial veto of a state lottery.

Referenda were also resorted to on moral issues. There were repeated, and often closely divided, referenda on temperance in 1847-50, 1853, 1903, and 1916. There were referenda on gambling in 1960 and 1976. Moral issues, which elude easy political compromise, can also make for difficult referenda. The repeated 19th century referenda on temperance produced changing results—temperance lost by a fourteen-vote margin in 1848 and won in 1853 by 521 votes out of 44,109 cast. It also divided and exhausted the electorate, and contributed to the collapse of the Whig Party, the century-long minority status of the Democratic Party, and to the emergence of the Republican Party. Popular support for gambling overrode church and executive opposition to state-sponsored gambling.

The use of referenda also touches upon basic questions about our democratic society, particularly whether popular majorities are sufficient safeguards for minority rights. The legislative debate over a referendum on women’s jury service included discussions on whether the referendum should be restricted to women voters.

The referendum deserves more study and we hope these pages will encourage such research.


This page was last updated: 2018-02-13