Putting the People Back in Direct 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)

Supporters of direct democracy – initiative, referendum and recall – like to go on about "The People." But the official role of the people in California’s initiative process is limited.

The people give their signatures to paid petition circulators. And they vote on measures. That’s it.

One consensus that emerged from the recent 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in San Francisco was this: the people should and could have a bigger role throughout the process.

Technology, in particular, offers an opportunity for the public to take on an active role in each step of the process.

Here are a few practical ways to do that:

1. Let the public become involved in the drafting of measures. Over the Internet, there could be a designated time period – say a month – right after each initiative is filed when the public would be invited to make suggestions, edits and corrections to each initiative. The sponsor could then incorporate these changes without having to re-file the initiative and start the clock all over again.

2. Titles and summaries. There’s plenty of frustration with the current attorney general – and his predecessors – who seem to have put their thumb on the scale by drafting official titles and summaries that favor the a.g.’s political supporters.

Why not turn the drafting of titles and summaries over to the public? One method would be to use a citizens’ jury, made up of voters selected at random, that could convene, listen to testimony from all sides of the issue, and come to a conclusion?

3. Voter guide and ballot arguments. See #2. A citizens’ jury could hear all sides and arguments on each measure. Some members of the jury would end up as supporters of the measure; they would write the "yes" ballot argument. Others would oppose the measure and would write the "NO"

Something like this is already happening in Oregon, through a pilot project put together by the Oregon legislature under the auspices of a group called Healthy Democracy Oregon.

These reviews could include a televised debate component, where representatives of the jury debate the issue themselves. Wouldn’t that make for a more informative campaign than what we have now?

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