The experience of Props 1 and 2 was frustrating to watch. On two significant proposals – a water bond and a budget-debt-reserve formula – voters only got one side of the story (the no campaigns for both were practically nonexistent). Both measures easily passed, without much debate (beyond the Prop 2 debate I tried to instigate here at Fox & Hounds Daily).
Even worse, voters got only one choice – the choice that the legislature wanted them to have. It was take it or leave it. The people couldn’t offer their own counter-proposal – a better water bond, a better reserve proposal.
The people of California deserve to have the right to such a counter-proposal. And it wouldn’t require a new invention. Such a counterproposal exists in some Swiss cantons, or states, where it’s called the “constructive referendum” or the “people’s amendment.”
When the legislative body puts a measure on the ballot, the clock starts for voters and interest groups to propose and qualify by signatures their own counter-proposals. A qualifying counter-proposal – or constructive referendum – ends up on the ballot next to the original legislative referendum.
This is indisputably better for voters. Instead of one choice handed down from on high, they can make at least three choices. The first is yes or no on the legislative referral. The second is yes or no on the “people’s amendment.” And the third question is: if both pass, which do you prefer? (If more than one constructive referendum qualifies, multiple measures go on the ballot, and voters are asked to rank them in order of preference.)
The resulting campaign is likely to produce more debate and voter knowledge about the measures than we have with the one-choice Prop 1 or Prop 2. When voters are presented with competing measures, the natural question to ask is: how do they compare? Answering that question requires looking into the actual detail of the measures. That’s very different than what happened with Prop 1 or 2, where voters considered concepts – water infrastructure, a rainy day fund – without receiving much information about the details of the measures.
If this idea of a constructive referendum sounds vaguely familiar to readers of this space, it should. I’ve written in the past about another, different type of counter-proposal used in Switzerland other places – the legislative counter proposal. In a counter proposal system, when the people put an initiative on the ballot, the legislature can counter by putting on a counterproposal, right next to the initiative.
The constructive referendum is literally the other side of that coin – a popular counterproposal to the legislative idea. With the same virtues.
A fully formed direct democracy always allows for a better idea. If the people have an idea, we should hear from the legislature if it has a better idea. IF the legislature has an idea, we should hear better ideas from the people.
One immediate wonky objection to this idea will involve time – the legislature can put on ballot measures late in a cycle – August for a November election. That would leave no time for a citizens’ counterproposal.
So a counterproposal would require the legislature to add things to the ballot much earlier. That extra time would be a virtue, not a defect, permitting more time to mount opposition and debate the details of the measure.
If would-be initiative reformers were really serious when they say they want to empower people, legislative counterproposals and people’s amendments would be the right place to start.