Switzerland Considers 5 Ballot Measures Too Many; California Sees 12 Statewide Measures as Too Few

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

If you want to know why Swiss direct democracy is better than the California version, you couldn’t find any better evidence than the respective fall ballots.

In particular, a comparison of the two ballot shows the Swiss taking their roles as legislators seriously—and thus demonstrating how silly we Californians are in discharging our duties in deciding laws and constitutional amendments.

Switzerland has a vote on national ballot measures this Sunday, Sept. 27. The date is only for considering ballot measures—there are no candidate elections or other questions to vote on. Switzerland keeps ballot measures separate from elections. It holds four dates a year for ballot measure votes, and votes for candidates on a different schedule every two years.

This Sunday is being called “Super Sunday” in Sweden because the ballot has, wait for it, 5 measures on one ballot. Five! The Swiss fear that may be too much to consider on one ballot—because each measure needs to get full media and public scrutiny, so voters really understand what they’re voting on. (That’s another reason for the separate Swiss calendar for ballot measures).

Meanwhile, in California’s November elections, our voters face 12 statewide ballot measures on a ballot that is full of other races—from the president to state assembly to various local votes. Those 12 measures have gotten relatively little scrutiny and attention. A few of them have not been covered at all. But still we will vote.

And there has been commentary about a declining number of ballot measures in California.

What can we take from this comparison? That California ought to be more Swiss. Stop voting on ballot measures at the same time as candidate elections. And spread out the measures, so we never face more than a few measures at the same time.

Of course, to make such changes, California would finally have to take direct democracy seriously.

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