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Lloyd Omdahl, Published February 24 2013

Omdahl: Saved by referral, initiative

The authority to initiate and refer laws, often called “direct democracy,” has been a constant irritant to the Legislature but, in fact, it has saved the assembly from some unpleasant job-threatening controversies.

Take our century-long seesaw fight over alcohol.

Prohibition was a hot topic in 1889. When it came time to submit the state’s new constitution to the voters, convention delegates decided to let the electorate decide the issue separate from the constitution.

Good thing. The vote tells us how important the Prohibition issue was in 1889. In fact, some residents felt Prohibition was more important than the constitution, with 397 more folks voting on the Prohibition question than voting on the adoption of the constitution.

The constitution passed handily, but the vote on Prohibition demonstrated the even split in the electorate. Prohibition was approved by 52 to 48 percent. The close vote was indicative of the long fight to come.

It started as soon as the referral process was available. In 1916, a measure to tighten the noose on bootlegging was approved 55 to 45 percent,

In 1928, a proposal to repeal Prohibition was rejected 52 to 48 percent.

In 1933, voters approved the sale of beer by 70 to 30 percent, but in 1934 killed two proposals to broaden sale of alcohol by 58 to 42 percent and 56 to 44 percent.

In 1936, the liquor folks won one – limited legalization of the sale of liquor by 53 to 47 percent. However, in 1937, a proposal to abolish all Prohibition was defeated 56 to 44 percent.

Now the “dry” forces went to work to curb the appeal of liquor sales. In 1938, dancing was prohibited where liquor was sold by 59 to 41 percent.

An initiated measure to repeal the state’s liquor control act in 1938 lost 62 to 38 percent.

In 1942, a measure to prohibit the sale of alcohol in restaurants was defeated in a 50-50 vote.

In 1944, a measure to prohibit the sale of alcohol in most commercial establishments was rejected by 51 to 49 percent, but the same measure came back in 1946 and was approved by 51 to 49 percent. In 1948, the same measure was again on the ballot, and repeal was again rejected 52 to 48 percent. All were initiated measures.

Also in 1948, a proposal to let local governments decide the liquor issue was soundly rejected by 60 to 40 percent. Local option was tried again in 1950 and was again rejected – more soundly – with 71 percent against.

But the fight wasn’t over. In 1952, the liquor industry proposed expanding liquor sales from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. That lost 58 to 42 percent. A similar measure came back in 1954, this time proposing sales between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. This was defeated 56 to 44 percent.

The Legislature now sitting in Bismarck has been entertaining a bill to allow Sunday liquor sales to start at 10 a.m. The proponents argue that they may need to pick up a pack for afternoon football or a Sunday picnic.

That is not a good argument. If imbibers can’t think ahead on Saturday as to what they want on Sunday afternoon, maybe they’re not up to another two hours of liquor sales?

If it passes, maybe somebody will refer it to a vote of the people – just for old time’s sake. But then perhaps zeal on the issue has cooled since the cork is so far out of the bottle.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor, and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com