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Oregon System


OREGON SYSTEM. The "Oregon System" refers to the use of initiative and referendum, populist lawmaking tools. The former allows citizens to initiate state legislation, while the latter refers laws passed by the legislature to the people for approval.

By the 1890s direct democracy had become a major goal of the Populist movement, which aimed to counter corrupt influences in politics that could supersede the will of the voting public. In 1894 William S. U'Ren became chair of the Oregon convention of the People's Party, the electoral project of the Populists. He used his party to create the Oregon Direct Legislation League and widened that coalition until his plan passed the state legislature in 1901. The voters approved it by an eleven-to-one margin the next year.

The results were extraordinary. In 1908 U'Ren proposed an initiative that made Oregon the first state in the nation to popularly elect U.S. senators. In 1910 another initiative in Oregon created the nation's first presidential primary. Then, in 1912 Oregon women won by initiative the right to vote, thanks to hardworking suffragists led by Abigail Scott Dunaway. In 1914 initiatives established prohibition and banished the death penalty in Oregon.

Most of the states to establish the "Oregon System" did so by the end of the 1910s. Thus, the strong residual populist influence on politics in the far West during that era determined the locale of most states that still used the initiative and referendum system in the early 2000s. Seventeen of twenty-three direct-democracy states were west of the Mississippi River.


Schmidt, David D. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.


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