There’s an old Swiss saying: every time the referendum bell
rings, an angel gets its wings.

OK, there’s
not really an old Swiss saying like that.

But there
should be.

referendum is the low-fat yogurt of direct democracy: pleasurable but
guilt-free. You’re not tearing some guy out of office mid-term, like in a
recall. (You might call that firing squad democracy). You’re not circumventing
budgets and legislative checks and all semblance of accountability, as you are
with a California initiative. (You might call that drunk-in-a-bar democracy)

referendum is nothing but direct democracy. Someone objects to something the
legislature does, and so the people step in to pass judgment. It doesn’t get
any more direct than that — the people communicating directly with those they
elect. No intermediaries. (The initiative, which is a way for the people to
circumvent those they elect, is in this way quite indirect). 

Of course,
California favors initiative-style direct democracy. We’ve had more initiatives
filed in a year than we’ve had referendums filed in the history of the state
(fewer than 85).

So to have
three referendums filed in early summer – to reverse legislation on Internet
sales tax, a fire fee, and redevelopment agencies — is quite something. This
is summer, the high season of California referendums.

It’s not
clear if all three will qualify. Referendums are hard – that’s why there have
been so few. The signature standard is high – the same as it is for an
initiative statute – but there’s less time, only 90 days to gather (as opposed
to 150 days for an initiative). California would be better off if it lowered
the signature standard for referendums, gave referendum sponsors more time to
gather, or both.

If you worry about too many
measures reaching the ballot, make initiatives less attractive by giving the
legislature the ability to amend measures more easily – and making it a little
harder to pass constitutional amendments by initiative. More referendums, fewer
initiatives would be a move in the right direction.