American West Briefing Tour: Participants learn about origins of direct democracy

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September 22, 2011

American West.jpg

By Kelly O'Keefe

Ballopedia Travel Journal

SAN FRANCISCO, California: We began our day with an informative roundtable discussion about the origins of modern direct democracy. Robert Cherny, professor of history at San Francisco State University, walked us through Californian direct democracy from the 19th century until the present.

And believe me, I need all the help I can get. On the first day of our tour, all of the participants introduced ourselves. I had to say, "Hello, I'm Kelly O'Keefe, and I know nothing about direct democracy." Luckily, Al is here to cover for me. After our first session I had to frantically ask him what the difference between Initiative and Referendum was. I know, embarrassing.

Professor Cherny took us back to the 1880s, when the first direct democracy advocates were active in California. This activity was a precursor to Switzerland's adoption of direct democratic practices in 1891, an event that is often thought to mark the beginning of the modern direct democratic movement.

In 1897, South Dakota became the first state to have statewide initiative and referendum. However, South Dakota rarely used these tools of direct democracy.

It was in Oregon that direct democracy really took off. William U'Ren, a populist turned progressive Republican, helped win passage of an initiative & referendum amendment to the Oregon state constitution in 1898. In 1902, the constitution was amended accordingly. Direct democracy took off in Oregon in the early 1900s. In 1912, Oregon voters passed women's suffrage through the initiative process. The "Oregon System" of using initiative and referendum attracted nationwide attention.

Back in California, Los Angeles adopted initiative and referendum at the local level in 1903. By 1907, initiative and referendum could be used at the state level as well. It was the Lincoln/Roosevelt League, a group of progressive Republicans, who were the staunchest advocates for direct democracy in California.

Professor Cherny believes that direct democracy was more popular in the west because political parties were comparably less powerful than they were in the east. He shared an interesting graph with us that showed the number of initiatives on the Caifornia ballot in each decade. Between 1912 and 1919, there were 30 unique propositions. These numbers held steady until a sudden drop off in the mid-1940s. It wasn't until the 1970s that the number of initiatives returned to their original levels. Numbers spiked in the 1980s, and from 2000-2009, there have been a record-setting 79 California ballot propositions.

Notable propositions in California's history include California Proposition 13 (1978), which returned property assessments to 1975 levels and capped annual property tax increases at 2%, and California Proposition 187 (1994) which made illegal aliens ineligible for public benefits.

Professor Cherny has a number of ideas about how to reform direct democracy in California. He would like petitioners to be paid by the hour, rather than by the signature. He would also like to see a geographic distribution requirement for signature collection. He also believes that the legislature needs to have the authority to tax and spend, and that if an initiative would require spending cuts, those cuts must be delineated during the petitioning process. Professor Cherny also thinks that all tax and spending initiatives should expire within five years, and that any initiative that requires a supermajority vote must be approved by a supermajority. Cherny's other prescriptions include funding public higher education at the same level as public primary education and requiring transparency in petition drive funding.

  • Current City: San Francisco

What else to look for today

  • Hastings: Lunch with Professor Michael Salerno discussing the strong and weak points of initiative and referendum
  • San Francisco City Hall: Meeting with local administrators and practitioners of direct democracy.
  • Home of the Swiss Consul General: Dinner and discussion
Learn more about the tour and its participants here.

Follow the tour!

See also