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.