With women voting, Washington voters favor Progressive Theodore Roosevelt for president, approve initiative, referendum, and recall powers, and elect first women to statewide office and to legislature on November 5, 1912.

  • By David Wilma and Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/30/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5589
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On November 5, 1912, the Washington electorate, which includes women following the 1910 suffrage amendment to the state constitution, demonstrates support for Progressive causes and candidates. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who has split from the Republican Party to run under the Progressive ("Bull Moose") banner, gains Washington's electoral votes but Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) wins the White House. As with the presidency, the split between Progressives and conservative Republicans allows a Democrat, Ernest Lister (1870-1919), to win Washington's governor's mansion. Republican candidates claim all other statewide offices; one of them, Josephine Corliss Preston (1873-1958), becomes the first woman in Washington to hold statewide office when she is elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. Republicans win three U.S. House of Representatives seats while Progressives win two at-large House seats. Two women, a Republican and a Progressive, are elected to the Washington State House of Representatives. The biggest Progressive victory is the approval of state constitutional amendments allowing voters to enact laws via initiative, reject legislative action via referendum, and recall elected officials.

"Fit as a Bull Moose"

A Republican, Theodore Roosevelt had been president from 1901 to 1909 and was succeeded by his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft (1857-1930). Taft's policies fell under the influence of the conservative wing of the party while Roosevelt's views became more progressive. At the Republican convention in 1912, Taft supporters managed to exclude delegates loyal to Roosevelt, and this caused a party split. These progressive Republicans joined the Progressive Party, which nominated Roosevelt. Roosevelt declared, "I feel fit as a Bull Moose" (Van Doren) and provided the party with a nickname.

Wilson's and Taft's platforms differed on tariffs (Democrats wanted tariffs for revenue rather than protection) and the control of monopolies. Roosevelt campaigned for reform in state and federal election laws, controls on trusts and monopolies, woman suffrage, and laws protecting women and children in the workplace. Roosevelt announced, "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord" (Van Doren) and he found a strong following among progressive citizens in Washington state. The Seattle Times reported, "[T]he socialist vote melted away ... every socialist stronghold from last March turned in a strong Bull Moose vote."

Although Woodrow Wilson received only a plurality of popular votes nationwide, he won the presidency by the largest electoral majority in U.S. history to that point, with Roosevelt second and Taft a distant third in electoral votes. The Socialist candidate, Eugene Debs (1855-1926), won no electoral votes but made his strongest showing to date in a national election by racking up more than a million votes nationwide. Nearly half the popular vote in Washington went to Progressive and Socialist candidates.

State Candidates

That support helped Progressives James Wesley Bryan (1874-1956) and Jacob Alexander Falconer (1869-1928) win crowded races for the two of the state's five U.S. House of Representatives seats that in 1912 were elected not by district but at-large (all state voters could vote for those two seats). Republicans prevailed in races for the three House seats elected by district: incumbents William Ewart Humphrey (1862-1934) in the First District and William L. La Follette (1860-1934) in the Third, and newcomer Albert Johnson (1869-1957) in the Second.

Republicans won all the statewide offices except the top one. In a tight race, Democrat Ernest Lister (1870-1919) of Tacoma edged incumbent Republican Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) by less than a thousand votes (97,251 to 96,629), as four other candidates, led by Progressive King County Sheriff Robert T. Hodge (with 77,792 votes) and Socialist Anna A. Maley (with 37,155), split nearly 40 percent of the total votes.

Anna Maley was one of a significant number of women on the ballot in the first statewide election following the November 1910 ratification, by the state's then all-male electorate, of Amendment 6 to the state constitution, which granted Washington women the right to vote. Republican Josephine Preston won a four-way race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, becoming the first woman in Washington elected to statewide office (then a partisan position like other statewide offices, the superintendent position was later made nonpartisan). Two women -- Progressive Nena Jolidon Croake (1865-1934) and Republican Frances C. Axtell (1866-1953) -- won seats in the state House of Representatives, becoming the first two women elected to the legislature.

Direct Legislation

Well beyond its candidates' success, the Progressive movement's biggest and longest-lasting achievement in the 1912 election was the enactment of constitutional amendments giving Washington voters the powers of direct legislation via initiative, referendum, and recall, which have played significant roles in the state's electoral and political history ever since. For Progressives who, in addition to other reforms, sought to counter the economic and political influence of large corporations, especially railroads and banks, by supporting municipal ownership of electric and water utilities, harbor and transportation facilities, and other essential services, direct legislation was both a goal in itself and a means to win further reforms.

Direct legislation -- which includes not only initiative, referendum, and recall but also direct election of U.S. senators by voters (rather than selection by state legislatures) and direct primaries (nominees chosen by popular vote rather than party leaders) -- was frequently referred to as "the Oregon system" because that state pioneered most of those reforms, led by Progressive lawyer and legislator William S. U'Ren (1859-1949). U'Ren's ideas, and their success in Oregon, led to a push for similar reforms in Washington, which succeeded in the 1911 legislative session. Progressives were at the height of their influence during that session, which also saw passage many other significant reforms, including the nation's first workers' compensation system, the Port District Act that created public port districts in Washington, an eight-hour day for women, new insurance and banking codes, non-partisan elections for judges, and a Public Utilities Commission to oversee railroads.

Unlike the other, statutory reforms, adoption of initiative, referendum, and recall required amending the state constitution, so after being passed by the 1911 legislature, those proposals appeared on the 1912 election ballot, where they were approved by large margins, becoming Amendments 7 and 8 to the Washington constitution. (Another proposed amendment, which would have removed two-term limits for most county elected officials, was rejected; term limits for all county officials were eventually removed by a 1948 amendment.)

Many Measures

While recall has not played a major role in state politics, being utilized relatively infrequently and primarily at the local level, direct legislation via initiative and referendum immediately became, and has remained, a major part of Washington's electoral landscape. From the time the first initiative measure was filed in 1914 (to enact Prohibition, which became one of the first two initiatives to win voter approval) through June 1, 2011, there have been 1,184 "initiatives to the people" filed with the Secretary of State. Only a small fraction of those -- 140 measures -- collected sufficient signatures to win a place on the ballot (in many cases, sponsors withdraw a measure or do not collect any signatures; in others they submit insufficient signatures), but of those that made the ballot, almost half -- 69 -- have been approved and become law. There have also been more than 500 "initiatives to the legislature" filed since 1914, with 30 collecting enough signatures to require the legislature either to pass the measure into law itself (which it did in 5 cases) or submit it to the voters, who have approved 11 such measures and two alternative measures proposed by the legislature.

Referenda, in which voters can reject laws passed by the legislature, have appeared on the ballot less frequently, but have also significantly influenced state law. From 1914 through 2009, citizens filed 75 measures challenging legislative enactments; 36 of those measures collected enough signatures to force a vote, and 30 of those votes resulted in rejection of the legislation. The legislature itself, rather than simply passing a law, can refer a proposed law to voters. It has done so more than 50 times, with voters approving 37 laws referred by the legislature and rejecting 11 (the courts blocked two referenda from going to voters).


Webster's Guide to American History: A Chronological, Geographical, and Biographical Survey and Compendium, ed. by Charles Van Doren and Robert McHenry (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1971), 369-371, 914-915, 1203-1205; "Wilson Wins: Vote Largest in History," Seattle Daily Times, November 6, 1912, p. 1, 17; M.M. Matison, "Bob Hodge Overwhelmingly Beaten," Ibid., p. 1, 2; Washington Secretary of State, Abstract of Votes Polled in the State of Washington at the General Election held November 5, 1912, (Olympia: State of Washington, 1913), 4-11; "Past Election Results," Washington Secretary of State website accessed October 11, 2011 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/results_search.aspx); "Initiative and Referendum History and Statistics: 1914-2010," Secretary of State website accessed October 11, 2011 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/statistics.aspx); "William S. U'Ren (1859-1949)," The Oregon History Project website accessed October 7, 2011 (http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/historical_records/dspDocument.cfm?doc_ID=3F8C6912-1C23-B9D3-687322180A70F674); Norman H. Clark, Washington: A Bicentennial History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976), 90-98; Don Brazier, "History of the Washington Legislature, 1854-1963," Washington State Legislature website accessed October 7, 2011 (www.leg.wa.gov/History/Legislative/Documents/HistoryOfTheLeg.pdf), pp. 75-78.
Note: This essay and was revised and expanded on October 19, 2011, and expanded again on July 25, 2013, to include Josephine Preston's election as the first woman to hold statewide office in Washington.

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