State Constitutions: Referendum Row

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Michigan modernized its constitution four years ago, but the proud old traditions of initiative and referendum survived the streamlining. Dating from the turn of the century and designed to prevent high-handed legislatures from disregarding the will of the people, initiative-referendum provisions exist in nearly half the states. Such clauses can occasionally produce some unintended results, as Michigan has discovered in a case that recently came—quite literally—to light.

Michigan's problem arose after the U.S. Congress approved Daylight Saving Time for all states except those that specifically asked to be exempted. Michigan's legislature duly voted for exemption, largely because the state lies on the far western rim of the Eastern Time Zone, making for 10 p.m. sunsets in some western towns under Daylight Saving. Residents of more easterly Detroit, however, were loath to lose the extra hour of leisure-time illumination that Daylight Saving gave them. To get the hour back again, they resorted to the referendum.

Odd Hook. The sponsors of the state's pro-Daylight Saving drive were aware of an odd hook sometimes found in referendum laws. By petitioning for a referendum on a newly enacted law, a mere 5% of Michigan's voters can nullify that law until the next general election, which in this case will be in 1968. Only 274 more people than the required minimum—123,096 out of the nearly 2,500,000 who voted in the last statewide election—signed petitions, thereby suspending the anti-Daylight Saving law. Thus, for at least two summers, the fraction of Michiganders who petitioned for the referendum were set to have their way.

The result was instant chaos. City and county offices in many western towns in the Upper Peninsula refused to change to Daylight Time; federal offices shifted obediently, then moved their office hours up one hour to cancel out the off-phase effect. State-operated liquor stores closed on Daylight, but bars grabbed an extra late hour of business by sticking to Standard Time. The twin cities of Calumet and Hancock could not agree and so divided.

State officials finally worked out a compromise. The Upper Peninsula will go on Central Daylight (which is, of course, the same as Eastern Standard); the rest of the state will stay on Eastern Daylight.

But state legislative experts are now waiting in dread for what other well-organized minorities may do to laws they dislike. While appropriations cannot be suspended in Michigan by referendum, tax legislation can—and a diehard group of tax haters could nullify the new income tax now under consideration and plunge the state into fiscal disarray merely by passing around petitions. Nor is there any easy way to prevent them. Because the right of referendum is guaranteed by the Constitution, a referendum cannot be mounted to eliminate it. The only way to change it is by the tortuous process of constitutional amendment.