The week before Thanksgiving, I served again as co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. This is a network of journalists, scholars, election administrators, experts in public participation, and activists who work in direct and participatory democracy. We get together about every two years or so to compare notes.
Our gathering this November was in Donostia-San Sebastian, the seaside resort in the Basque Country.
On the forum’s opening night, I walked along the bay to Donostia-San Sebastian’s city hall, which is right next to the city carousel. But between the carousel and city hall, I was met my protestors—about 100 people, carrying various signs, some in English, some in Spanish, one in Basque. It took me a few minutes to realize their target:
Well, the official me, as co-president of the Global Forum. They wondered why such an event would take place in a city where their efforts to put questions to the public had been stymied.
This being a collection of democracy people, we were all delighted to be protested – a historic first for the forum. We talked to the protestors and learned they had many issues on which they wanted the people to vote – the establishment of a subway station, the preservation of historic buildings, even direct democracy itself.
In some cases, they felt the city had stymied their referendum. In others, the city was willing to do a referendum—but the federal government was the problem.
In fact, that theme—a central government blocking the local initiative and referendum rights of the people – was a big one in Spain, and at the forum. It’s also a little discussed issue in California. While statewide initiative rights are strong (at least if you’re rich), direct democracy is actually much weaker at the local level, which is the level at which initiative and referendum should be strongest.
The forum experience made me think much more about local direct democracy. I’ll share more of those thoughts – and about focusing direct democracy reform at the local level – in future posts.