At a recent global conference on direct democracy in Rome, Erwin Mayer, who advocates for greater initiative and referendum power in his home country of Austria, made a powerful suggestion:

Why not combine citizens assemblies with ballot initiatives?

It’s a great idea, and one that should be adopted in California.

Citizen’s assemblies are participatory bodies of regular citizens, not elected officials. They can work in many different ways; one of the most famous is in British Columbia. But they are essentially citizens juries, often chosen by lot or via different forms of sortition, to make proposals, consider proposals, or study problems.

As Californians, you know what ballot initiatives are. Unfortunately in California and other states, there is one way to get an initiative on the ballot: spend money on signatures. Which means that dollars, not the quality of an idea, determines what gets on the ballot.

Mayer’s idea would change that.

Citizens with ballot initiative ideas wouldn’t have to recruit a billionaire. They could send their idea to a citizens’ assembly, and the assembly could evaluate it and put it on the ballot.

In California, that would require creating such an assembly, and giving it the power to put ideas on the ballot. This should produce better initiatives, and create more deliberation around a process that has few deliberative elements in our state.

So why doesn’t it happen? Rich people and rich interests like how their money gives them control of the ballot. They don’t want competition. Let’s give them some.