American West Briefing Tour: Direct democracy advocates talk reform

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September 22, 2011

American West.jpg

By Kelly O'Keefe

Ballopedia Travel Journal

SAN FRANCISCO, California: On Wednesday night, we headed to a panel discussion held by Zocalo Public Square. Our very own tour leader, Joe Mathews, moderated the panel. The tour participants joined about 100 other citizens for the event, which was called "How Do We Put the People Back in the Initiative Process?"

Zocalo Public Square event

The participants discussed ways to strengthen the peoples' involvement in direct democracy. The event was timely, considering that the 100th anniversary of Californian direct democracy is on October 10th of this year. The panelists agreed that the process of direct democracy should be more accessible and deliberative. The take away from the discussion: "mend it, don't end it."

The panelists were Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, Paul Jacob of the Citizens in Charge Foundation, Bruno Kaufman of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego.

Kim Alexander advocated increasing the role of technology and transparency in the democratic process. She thinks that the process of direct democracy should emulate the lawmaking process, and that voters should be aware of the sponsors of initiatives. She believes that lists of the top five initiative donors should be made available to voters at polling places.

Paul Jacob encouraged Californians to make it easier for average citizens to become involved in the initiative process. He noted that restrictions on the initiative process stop the grassroots, not the elite, from becoming involved. He thinks that the length of time that petitioners have to gather signatures should be increased.

Bruno Kaufman noted that California has an inflexible initiative process, calling it "a hammer, not a screwdriver." He thinks a more effective system of direct democracy would allow conflict to be resolved, not to be enhanced through the initiative process. He advocated that California allow online signature gathering. He said the effectiveness of a system of direct democracy can be judged by whether or not citizens can be "happy losers."

James Fowler, who researches genopolitics, or the intersection of genetics and political behavior, provided the audience with social science examples with parallels to direct democracy. He pointed out that people can be overwhelmed by choice, and that we can reach a decision-making capacity. He believes that the limits of human decision-making can hinder our ability to participate in a system that requires frequent voting as well as historically high numbers of ballot measures.


Stay tuned for more updates!

  • 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