During America's "Progressive Era" (1890s through 1920s, ) populists in Nevada adopted several major political reforms, including initiative, referendum, and recall. The right to referendum was the first reform, enacted in 1904. Referendum is a direct vote of the people whether to approve or repeal a law enacted by the state legislature. A referendum (or public vote) occurs only after the legislature passes a law, and in Nevada, a referendum can only be amended by another vote of the people. In other words, once approved by the voters, the law cannot be changed by legislators.

In 1901, the Nevada legislature passed legislation that amended the Nevada constitution to provide for referendum petitions and elections. The measure was passed a second time in 1903, as required by the constitution. It was approved by the voters at the general election of 1904 by a vote of 4,404 to 794.

Nevada's referendum provisions, found in Article 19 of the constitution, provide for a petition-based process. Any person who wishes to have the voters decide the merits of a "statute or resolution or part thereof enacted by the legislature" must gather signatures for a petition. The number of signatures must be at least equal to ten percent of the number of voters who voted in the preceding general election. If the petition signatures are valid, the question is put to the voters only once.

Referendum of a state statute has only occurred five times since 1908. Four of these statutes were approved by the voters and the laws were upheld as the legislature intended. One, the "Rabies Commission Law," was repealed by the voters and therefore removed from the law books. Of key significance, a portion of the Sales and Use Tax Act of 1955 was upheld by referendum. The right to an abortion was also upheld by referendum in 1990. Any changes to either of these laws cannot be made without voter approval.

Referendum organizers have used the provision to "protect" a law from being altered by subsequent legislative action. In 1967 the legislature expanded the referendum process to include county and city ordinances. The local government referendum process is codified in Chapter 295 of the Nevada Revised Statutes.

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