As Californians assess direct democracy on our system’s 100
birthday, one criticism echoes from across the political spectrum: access to
the system is limited because qualifying ballot initiatives, referenda, and
recalls is such a costly process.

to this problem are being discussed. Some argue that permitting electronic
signature gathering would reduce costs. Others suggest replacing the signature
gathering process with an alternative measure of popular support (the most
intriguing such proposal is Timothy Vande Krol’s idea of letting parties put their
initiative ideas on the primary ballot – and then advancing initiative ideas with
the most support to the general election ballot). At a recent symposium in San
Francisco, Nathan Gardels of the Think Long Committee said his organization was
considering a proposal that would give a committee of 21 people – appointed by
a variety of different California politicians and governing institutions with
the goal of finding solutions to the state’s long-term problems – the power to
put initiatives on the ballot themselves.

These ideas
are untested. But there’s a solution that’s already being used in Germany that
has the virtue of simplicity:

proponents for at least part of the costs of gathering signatures.

Here’s the
context. Direct democracy has been on the rise in the German states. Twenty
years ago, only 2 of the 16 states had initiative and referendum. Now all 16

Germans, as they have adopted direct democracy, wanted to diminish the
advantages of money in qualification. So six states — Hamburg, Niedersachsen,
Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, Thueringen – adopted a rule that
provides for reimbursements, from the state government directly, to cover the
cost of signature gathering.

Here’s how
it works, according to Ralf-Uwe Beck and Daniel Schily of the German direct
democracy group Mehr Demokratie, who described it to me during a recent visit
to California.

The reimbursement only applies to
measures that qualify. So once you’re referendum or initiative has enough
signatures for the ballot, the initiative proponents — a committee in Germany
— are reimbursed for each signature you submitted that was found to be valid
during the verification process. The reimbursement is about 20 cents per valid
signature. That doesn’t cover the whole cost, but much of it. (Signature costs
are lower because time limits tend to be longer in Germany than they are in
California and other U.S. states).

In some states, there’s also a
limited reimbursement for each vote that an initiative or referendum gains.

That may sound strange to American
ears, but it makes perfect sense to Germans. Their thinking is that an
initiative or a referendum is a public legislative process, not a private one.
So the state has an obligation to bear at least some of the costs of public
lawmaking – whether the lawmaking is done by members of a state parliament or
by the citizens of the state themselves.

Should we
do this in California? The immediate objection of most of us would be the cost,
but really this would be negligible. Assuming a 20-cent reimbursement on a
million valid signatures, you’re talking about $200,000 in reimbursement for a
successful campaign. Even if a dozen measures qualified in a year, you’re
talking about $2.4 million – a drop in the budget bucket.

The better objection would be that
such money wouldn’t be enough to help poorly funded initiatives, since $200,000
is only a fraction of the $2 million or so it costs to qualify. But a
reimbursement program might work if it were combined with an extension of the
time for qualifying a measure – from the current too-quick 5 months to something
like a year or 18 months – to reduce the costs of gathering. (And of course,
expanded access to the California initiative process must be combined with
reforms that force initiatives to pay for themselves and make them subject to
legislative amendment, which is how things work in many other states and
countries, including Germany).

With reimbursement and more time,
even poorly funded citizens’ groups might have a shot at playing the rich man’s
initiative game.