Repairing the initiative process - in CA and SF

If initiative and referendum in California and San Francisco is designed correctly, it has the potential to reinvigorate this age-old invention of representative government

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OPINION I recently participated in a research trip to Switzerland to study the alpine nation's system of direct democracy (initiative and referendum, or I&R). Its model offers fresh ideas about how to repair the dysfunctional initiative process in California and San Francisco.

In California, it takes approximately 750,000 signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot — almost 3 percent of the statewide population — and about three-fifths that for a nonconstitutional statute. That's an extremely high threshold, so in actual practice the only players able to qualify a ballot initiative are wealthy individuals or organizations that can pay an army of circulators about $3 per signature. It has been years since a statewide initiative has qualified through the work of volunteers.

Because of these dynamics, direct democracy in California has been captured by wealthy special interests. Proponents of Proposition 14, which was bankrolled by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and big business, outspent opponents by 50:1 to pass a "top two" primary that is deform masked as reform. Even when Big Money's measures lose — as PG&E's Proposition 16 did — they force everyone else to play defense. Ironically, this dynamic is the opposite of that envisioned by California Gov. Hiram Johnson, who in 1911 created the initiative to allow the people to counter powerful special interests like railroad tycoons.

But in Switzerland, the political leaders have crafted an impressive practice that fosters a noisy collaboration between the people and their elected representatives. That nation has a proposal-counterproposal system. Once an initiative or referendum qualifies for the ballot, the government is given a chance either to pass that law itself or put a counterproposal on the ballot. Similarly, if the government passes a law, the people can put their own counterproposal on the ballot or try to overturn the law via a referendum.

This dynamic unleashes a process that is less polarizing and fosters a healthier debate. That in turn fosters more of an ongoing dialogue between the people and their elected representatives that, over time, forges a broader consensus on issues.

But a key reason this dynamic works is because the Swiss only require about 100,000 signatures for an initiative — a bit more than 1 percent of the population — and 50,000 for a referendum. The Swiss also allow a longer period of time for collecting those signatures, up to 18 months, compared to only five months in California. So non-wealthy interests can use the I&R process and signatures can be gathered with all-volunteer labor.

Gathering 1 percent is still a sizable undertaking; it would equal about 370,000 signatures in California for a constitutional amendment. But that's low enough that serious efforts lacking deep pockets could still play in the game.

For example, look at the Jeff Adachi-led initiative over public pensions in San Francisco. Adachi has put his fingers on the pulse of an issue that needs addressing, but many progressives feel that the details in Adachi's measure are too harsh and polarizing. But what if a counterproposal was put on the ballot, giving the public another choice? The subsequent multichoice campaign would be less polarizing and could help find the sweet spot of consensus.

The Swiss model isn't perfect. Like California, when it comes to the actual I&R campaigns, Switzerland has inadequate campaign finance and transparency laws. With no public financing for underfunded campaigns, private money dominates and skews the public debate.

That's why free media time should be provided for all significant viewpoints. And shared financing for all campaigns, pro and con, should be considered; all campaigns would be required to pay 15 percent of the amount they spend on their own campaign into a common fund that is distributed to the underfunded campaigns.

Comments

Why don't we just put an end to the practice of paid signature gatherers? These parasites made a buck or two for every signature they gather. Their motivation has nothing to do with the ballot measure they are pushing and will say anything to voters to get them to sign.

Posted by SF on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 7:21 am

One of the most difficult things is getting the message out to the public. The signature-gatherers do not simply say, "Sign my petition!" and most residents in San Francisco certainly do not sign if that is all the information given to them. They usually ask about the measure, during which the signature-gatherers will briefly talk about the initiative. This is an effective way in getting the word out about important reforms that can positively change the city.

Posted by Courtney Allyson on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 9:18 am

Why does it matter that some signature gatherers are paid?

Adachi collected 75k signatures, not signature gatherers! No one forced any of the voters to sign the petitions.

Bottom line: the initiative process is the pure democracy in action. The initiative process represents the will of 75k San Franciscans (nearly 20% of registered voters in SF).

The problem isn't the initiative process, it's city government. Nothing ever gets done in city hall. Our politicians have no backbone and fear taking difficult but needed positions. For example, Gavin Newsom stated publically: "I don't know about a more important progressive issue than pension reform. There is no discretion left in our budgets to advance our progressive values of investing in people and investing in place if that discretion is taken up to meet our (pension) obligations.” However, because he is in bed with the unions who are funding his campaign for LT Governor, he chickens out and decides to oppose Adachi's plan, which is a true solution to our pension problems.

The only way to get anything done in SF is through the initiative process! If anything is to be changed, it should be the NUMBER of signatures necessary to put something on the ballot. It's ridiculous that it requires 10% of the voting population to get a measure on the ballot.

Posted by chansky on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 10:12 am

Who cares that signature gatherers are paid?

That doesn't change the fact that they collected 75 THOUSAND signatures from SF voters?

"SF" it sounds like you're simply upset that Adachi's measure is on the ballot and you're making an argument based on a red herring.

Posted by RCCOLA on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 10:24 am

The reality is that Adachi was receiving 300 signatures a day from people who simply printed out the petition, signed it, and sent it in. The notion that SF taxpayers don't want City employee benefits reformed in the face of an $800 million structural deficit driven primarily by said benefits, is misguided imo...

Posted by Seej on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 10:41 am

The true believer appeals to moderation when jambing their agenda down out throats fails.

"For example, look at the Jeff Adachi-led initiative over public pensions in San Francisco. Adachi has put his fingers on the pulse of an issue that needs addressing, but many progressives feel that the details in Adachi's measure are too harsh and polarizing. But what if a counterproposal was put on the ballot, giving the public another choice? The subsequent multichoice campaign would be less polarizing and could help find the sweet spot of consensus."

and...

The stupid citizens seem to have been duped again according to our progressives. Possibly electing more moderates cuts into the far left and rights agenda in California. The progressives like open and representative government when it works for them.

"Because of these dynamics, direct democracy in California has been captured by wealthy special interests. Proponents of Proposition 14, which was bankrolled by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and big business, outspent opponents by 50:1 to pass a "top two" primary that is deform masked as reform."

"Top two" and the changing of the way redistricting is done burns up so called progressives because they see that they may lose their most extreme representatives.

This essay isn't about representation of the people, but another scheme couched in populist rhetoric to get over.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 10:49 am