Lively discussion marks 100th anniversary of CA direct democracy

150 150 Kim Alexander

We are rapidly approaching the 100 year anniversary of the California initiative process, an occasion celebrated by some and scorned by others. The centennial of the Golden State’s system of direct democracy is provoking many to rethink this process and consider whether it needs an upgrade.

Many groups are sponsoring polls, public forums and debates, conducting research and cooking up ideas for reform.  But probably no event will be like the one Zocalo Public Square sponsored with New America Foundation and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center last week.

I had the honor of sharing the stage with several people who, like me, have taken some time to think seriously (and occasionally humorously, thankfully) about how the initiative process works. Author and New America Fellow Joe Mathews moderated our panel and brought his lightening fast quips to our spirited discussion. My favorite Mathews line was when he compared enacting initiatives to “adding another room to the Winchester mystery house”.  

Bruno Kaufmann, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, traveled the farthest to participate. He is a strong proponent of direct democracy for Europe and is involved in the EU’s European Citizen Initiative. That’s why his observation that California is the only place in the world where we need less direct democracy was so astonishing to me. He also observed that California initiatives are about creating and mirroring conflict, not solving it, which I found to be a highly true and astute perspective, the kind you can only get from someone like Kaufmann who has studied direct democracy in many states and nations.

Perhaps the most surprising panelist was James Fowler, medical geneticist and political scientist from UC San Diego.  At first, I could not figure out what a medical geneticist might have to say about direct democracy. Plenty, it turned out. Fowler studies decision-making, has researched the genetic roots of political ideology, and discussed how social networking sites are extensions of real networks and may be the key in successfully moving toward an online signature gathering platform for initiative campaigns.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic advocate for California’s initiative process was Paul Jacob of the Citizens in Charge Foundation. His organization led term limits initiative campaigns in California and several other states, and he believes California’s process works well (particularly in comparison to the majority of U.S. states, which have no initiative process). But he is concerned about the future of California’s initiative process, especially the way our Legislature deals with it, which he called “vindictive” (his case in point, passing a last-minute bill at the end of session that would prohibit initiatives from being placed on Primary election ballots).

My comments focused on the need to move toward publicized disclosure, and how the California Voter Foundation promotes reforms to ensure information about the top donors in initiative campaigns is readily available to voters when they are asked to sign initiative petitions; when they consult their ballot pamphlets; and when they cast their ballots. 

I also pointed out that on average only one in three initiatives pass, and we would serve voters better by treating the initiative process as the people’s lawmaking arena and ensuring voters have the access to the same kind of information lawmakers have when they vote on bills, such as knowing who the true sponsor of a measure is.

I anticipated a lively, engaged audience and was not disappointed! There were tons of great questions, and the discussion continued over cocktails and music well past the official end time.

Zocalo events aren’t over when the day is done. Zocalo staff write up a review of the session, called “The Takeaway”, post event photos, and make podcasts and video archives of every event. Zocalo deserves kudos for innovating a new kind of public forum for California’s communities that is engaging, interactive and much needed.

Kim Alexander is president & founder of the California Voter Foundation


Kim Alexander

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