The first 14 years of his life spent Lister in his native England. Then, his family emigrated to America, where they settled in Tacoma, Washington Territory. An uncle of Lister was mayor in this city. Ernest Lister soon operated a foundry and a wood processing factory.
At the beginning of his political career, Lister joined the Populist Party on. In 1894 he was elected to the City Council of Tacoma and 1896 he was campaign manager of Governor John Rogers. After Rogers' election victory Lister was rewarded for his efforts with the appointment of the chairman of a Supervisory who exercised supervision over the welfare program of the state.
When the Populist Party in the years merged more and more with the Democratic Party just before the turn of the century, were both Rogers and Lister at this party. In 1912, Lister was running for his party's nomination for the upcoming gubernatorial election. However, it did not prevail in the primaries. Only when was declared shortly before the actual election the Democratic candidate ineligible, Lister moved then still the top candidate of his party on. Then he also managed to win the election for governor. However, it should be the only Democrat who was elected this year in a political office in Washington State. Accordingly, he had in the following years in a difficult position against the opposition.
Governor of Washington
Ernest Lister took up his new post on January 11, 1913. As Governor, he stood up for the interests of agriculture. So he promoted irrigation systems and measures for clearing of farmland. At the same time, he supported a government insurance for industrial accidents and vetoed a bill of the State Parliament one that would have deprived the members of the Industrial Workers of the World citizens' rights. His efforts it is due to that the eight-hour day on the northwest coast of the United States found its way. In 1916, Lister was confirmed by the voters in his office; again he was the only candidate of the Democratic Party, who won an official position. His second term was overshadowed by the events of the First World War, in which the United States were involved since April 1917. Also in Washington State, the production was switched to the armament requirement. The U.S. Army founded 1917, the Fort Lewis.
During his second term, Lister became seriously ill and died on June 14, 1919, on the eve of his 49th birthday. The remainder of his term as governor had to finish Deputy Governor Louis F. Hart. Ernest Lister was married to Alma Thornton, with whom he had two children.