If 1996 was the year of the status quo for Congress and the White House, it was also a time to storm the Bastille with ballot initiatives.
In 20 states with 89 referendum items, voters voiced their concerns on some of the most hotly contested issues of our times. They overturned affirmative action in California, enacted stern term-limit laws, and approved the medicinal use of marijuana in California and Arizona.
The activity signaled disgust with foot-dragging by their elected officials on key local issues and - with twice the number of 10 years ago - a growing use of the political mechanism to take matters into their own hands.
"Citizen reformers across America are galvanizing around what won and taking inventory to know how to press for more of the same elsewhere," says Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
The most-watched initiative in the country, California's Prop. 209 won by a narrow margin, despite last-minute poll surges by opposing forces. In passing the nation's first voter test, the measure ends decades of affirmative action laws, stopping government programs that give minorities and women preferences in employment and schooling.
Even with a narrow margin, the passage of Prop 209 clearly gives a boost to a nationwide move to restrict government's role in promoting the interests of those who have faced discrimination in the past. But how far this movement goes remains uncertain. Even California's vote shows the complexity of racial issues. Exit polls show that voters who voted to approve Prop. 209 did not oppose affirmative action in principle.
"The search for more acceptable forms of affirmative action will now lead the agenda in California and nationally," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "But if one doesn't believe in quotas and goals, what does affirmative action mean? It remains to be seen."
Some observers expressed dismay that many of the beneficiaries of affirmative action, including a large block of white, women voters, voted for 209.
"The results seem to indicate that people of color and women who stood to lose from this were not as unanimous in their opposition as people would think," says Larry Berg, retired director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics. "It's tragic. It might be a reflection of the consistent historical amnesia of the young in this country."
The largest number of initiatives concerned measures that instruct congressional representatives to support a US constitutional amendment on term limits. Twenty-three states had adopted federal term limits from 1990 to 1995. But such laws were struck down last year by the US Supreme Court, which held that states could not themselves make laws to limit the offices of senators and congressmen.
The new idea is to place written notifications on the future ballots of those representatives who refuse to support such a federal amendment. Such disclaimers read, "Violated voter instruction on term limits" or "Declined to take pledge to support term limits." They will now be used in nine of 14 states that held votes Tuesday.
"Tuesday's votes are really a comeback after the Supreme Court's 1995 decision," says Jonathan Ferry, spokesman for US Term Limits. "This assures that term limits is right back on the agenda, that Congress still can't afford to ignore it."
Hunting restrictions also topped the ballot in a number of states. Ten measures were offered and eight passed, among them a ban on leghold traps in Colorado, a ban on wolf hunting from airplanes in Alaska.
"These wins have been a rejection of cruel and unsporting hunting practices nationwide," says Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the US. "Those that failed were largely a result of being outspent by the NRA and other trophy-hunting organizations."
Two other initiatives in Colorado that were being closely monitored nationally were a move to revoke tax-exempt status of some nonprofit groups and churches and a Parental Rights Amendment. Both measures failed.
"This was a real, come from behind miracle," says Pat Steadman of Protect Our Children, a coalition opposing Amendment 17, which would guarantee the rights of parents to "control the upbringing education, values, and discipline of children." Mr. Steadman says the amendment's supporters had a "stealth agenda" of opening the door to a school-voucher system. "We were able to convince voters how this would undermine current laws in adoption, education, health care, and intellectual freedom."