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Letter from Uruguay: Let Parties Put Initiatives, Referenda on the Ballot

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Uruguay, where I’ve spent the past week, is a global leader in direct democracy. Referenda are very much a part of civic life, from the local level (these folks vote on stoplights) to the national level. And the initiative process for national constitutional amendments is used to settle big questions.

So how is that different than California? The context, two big things. First, there are limits on what can go on the ballot. The Uruguayans don’t permit votes on two issues: international treaties and taxes. When I asked a senior government official why Uruguayans didn’t avail themselves of the supreme torture/entertainment of tax votes, he smiled at me and, with a look of superiority, explained, “Because we don’t want to become like California.”

Fair point, though we’re not about to follow Uruguay’s lead in this. The second big difference between Uruguay and California, however, is something Californians might think about.

Direct democracy in Uruguay is almost exclusively a game for parties.

For reasons that involve both law and culture and are a bit too complicated for a blog post, virtually all referenda and initiative constitutional amendments here are placed on the ballot by parties. In recent decades, the only other entity to succeed in reaching the ballot with measures were organizations of pensioners.

The parties, as sponsors and qualifying forces for initiatives and referenda, play an important role in Uruguay that no one really plays in California. Uruguayan political parties lead public debate and conversation around the ideas in the measures. They are a force for real deliberation on big issues (real deliberation is not about TV ads). The qualification process for a measure can take two years, and that time is also useful to the process, providing plenty of opportunity for close scrutiny of measures.

Time, deliberation, and scrutiny are all things badly missing from California’s process. Indeed, our process is driven by money and speed. It would be great if there was some civic infrastructure that could slow things down and drive real debate and deliberation over the measures. It also would be great if there was a way to counter the influence of money and develop alternative methods for qualifying measures for the ballot.

Why not have parties play the role? The obvious answer in California is that the parties, as institutions and engagement organizations, are relatively weak – a longtime condition exacerbated by the top two. And of course, reformers and good government groups in California are mostly hostile to parties.

But these basic arguments against empowering parties through the initiative and referendum process are also arguments for doing just that. California desperately needs stronger parties, particularly at the local level, for civic and political engagement. Why not give them an institutional role in putting at least one measure per cycle on the ballot? If smaller parties hit a certain threshold of the vote in elections, they could put a measure on the ballot as well.

This would be different than the role of parties in raising millions and using the signature gathering process for qualification, like rich people and interest groups. The idea would be a qualification process through which the parties were encouraged to engage their members, solicit ideas and suggestions for ballot measures, and then decide democratically among party members what they would most like to put on the ballot this year.

Such a system would be good for the parties – giving them an avenue for debate on issues and priorities – and for the state – which would establish a more democratic path to the ballot.

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