Joel Fox wrongly criticizes one of the few good ideas for reforming the initiative process: legislation in Oregon to permit the legislature to add a counter proposal to each initiative on the ballot.

He seems to think this is a trick to somehow limit the popular will, to sabotage the initiative process, or at least “attempt to undermine” it. Nonsense. To the contrary, the counter proposal is an established, time-tested procedure that strengthens direct democracy. Counter proposals have long been essential features of in Switzerland and other countries that use the initiative and referendum. In fact, the counter proposal gives more choice – and more information – to the people. Here’s hoping that Oregon adopts this legislation – and that California quickly follows suit.

Fox is right about one thing: California lawmakers can – with a two thirds vote – put measures on the ballot. But that’s not the same thing as the counter proposal. In a counter proposal system, the legislative measure would appear right next to the initiative on the ballot, so voters are confronted with the two measures together. (This is not the same as having Prop 8 respond to Prop 13, on a long list of initiatives as we would see on the California ballot). On the same page of the ballot, voters also should be asked a third question: if both the initiative and the counter proposal pass, which should take effect?

Here’s a made-up example of what that would look like on your ballot:

Prop 17: An initiative statute that says that each and every Californian must receive a $30 check from the state treasury every Thursday. Yes or no.

Legislative Counter Proposal to Prop 17: That only disabled Californians over the age of 50 will receive a $30 check from the state every Thursday. Yes or no:

Preference: If both Prop 17 and the Legislative Counter Proposal pass, which do you prefer?

In a counter proposal system, voters have more choice—they can choose one measure, the other measure, both or neither, and also state a preference between the two. The other great advantage of counter proposals is the nature of the campaigns they produce.

Instead of forcing voters to consider a single initiative measure in isolation, voters are asked to compare two measures on the same subject. This forces the media, the competing campaigns and ultimately voters to focus more attention on the differences between the two measures. By its nature, this sparks greater scrutiny of the substantive details of each measure. These kinds of comparative campaigns provide voters with more information.

The indirect initiative, which Fox prefers, is no substitute for the counter. An indirect initiative is little more than a petition, asking the legislature to weigh in on an initiative before it goes on the ballot. California had such an indirect initiative for half a century, but it was so rarely used that it was dropped from the constitution. There’s no point in reviving it. If you’re an initiative proponent, why go to the money and expense of putting your measure before the legislature when you can simply put it on the ballot? And it seems to be unlikely that an initiative proponent would respond to the legislature’s input.

The best way to involve the legislature in the process – without forcing initiative sponsors to give up anything – is the counter proposal. But what’s best about the counter proposal is not that it gives the legislature a way to participate in the initiative process. What makes the counter worthwhile is that it gives voters more choice – and thus more power. That’s what the initiative process and direct democracy should be all about.