Amazon may not have intended it, but
there’s historical justice in the online retailer’s use of the California

history of the referendum is tied up in the history of delivering items of
value – originally documents – from place to place.

history dates to 15th century Switzerland. Municipalities,
particularly in the canton Graubünden, were
trying to escape from the oversight of feudal overloads. Some bought their own
freedom, introduced their own courts – and joined together into leagues for
mutual defense and local self-determination.

But how could
municipalities communicate and cooperate while scattered across the difficult
Swiss terrain? Messengers were assigned to walk from town to town with
backpacks full of documents conveying negotiating positions on common

Those documents
would be presented to the citizens of each town for acceptance or refusal. This
"bringing back" of the documents is the origin of the term referendum (from the
Latin, "re" meaning "back" and "ferre" meaning "bring")

I learned this history while
helping edit a new exhibition on the shared history of direct democracy in
Switzerland, California and Oregon. (Self-promoting aside: The exhibition will
show at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco on Sept. 21, as part of a free,
public event on
the first 100 years of California direct democracy).