Do Californians Need a Passport to Democracy?

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)

I recently found myself in front of the Rose Bowl, using my iPhone to take a selfie of me holding a Democracy Passport.

The passport was in Swedish. It was produced in an advance of a Democracy Week declared by the city of Falun, Sweden at the end of this month. My friend and colleague in a global direct democracy forum, Bruno Kaufmann, lives in Falun and is working to organize the week, and he wanted photos of people in recognizable places all over the world holding this passport.

Why a passport to democracy? Because people don’t know all the democratic rights they have. Sweden and Europe have expanded the number of ways that citizens can participate in self-government in recent years; the EU even has its own citizens’ initiative process. But surveys have shown that few people know that their power has increased, and that there are new tools they can use.

This made me wonder how much Californians know about their own rights. What percentage of Californians know, for example, that they have the right to file a ballot initiative or referendum? I’ve not see polling on it – if anyone is aware of such work, please let me know –but I’d be surprised if even half of California voters knew that anyone can propose an initiative or referendum. Filing costs only $200.

People are probably even less aware of all the new opportunities and rights they have in different parts of the state to participate in the development of local government policy and budgeting.

So why not compile those into a passport – and give it out to people? It’d be a worthy project, a nice counter to the dominance of California’s democratic processes by the rich and well-connected. And it’s a passport you wouldn’t have to go to Sweden to use.

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