State's initiative system placed on 1902 ballot by Legislature

When and why did Oregon adopt the initiative system that lets us vote on issues ranging from taxes to whether the Portland area gets to have a private casino? Sometimes I like it and other times I feel like I just don't know enough to make a really informed decision.

— Katherine L., Medford

Let's take a walk back in time, Katherine, to 1902, when Oregon voters approved the ballot measure that created Oregon's initiative and referendum process.

The measure was put on the ballot by the Legislature (and 110 years later some current legislators probably are wondering, "What were they thinking?").

Regardless of today's views, the idea was a winner in 1902, coasting to a landslide victory with the whopping result of 62,024 in favor to 5,668 opposed.

According to the Oregon Blue Book, the proponents of the system at the time were known as the Direct Legislation League, a group of political activists led by state Rep. William S. U'Ren of the Populist Party.

U'Ren apparently was a bit of a rabble-rouser, and he and his fellow Populists were credited with fracturing the Legislature so completely that it was unable to even meet in 1897.

U'Ren also was among the leaders of the effort to create secret ballots for public elections; until the turn of the century, people's votes were public records. He also sponsored a measure extending initiative and referendum powers to local jurisdictions and another that allowed voters to recall elected officials.

In his spare time, he helped create the first presidential primary through an initiative passed in 1904. A busy guy, indeed.

Since the initiative and referendum system was approved, Oregonians have passed 120 of the 352 initiative measures placed on the ballot.

The state law also allows voters to refer laws passed by the Legislature for a vote; 23 of the 64 referendums have been passed by voters. Since 1902, the Legislature has referred 426 measures to the people, of which 251 have passed.

Those numbers will go up on Nov. 6, when the fate of nine more statewide ballot measures will be decided. Two of them are housekeeping measures referred by the Legislature. Initiatives on the ballot include the casino measure you mentioned, Katherine, plus a proposal to legalize marijuana and one to eliminate inheritance taxes.

Better start studying, Katherine, because, like it or not, the decisions are going to be in your hands (along with a couple million of your fellow Oregonians.)

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.