Thu, Aug

Summer of Referendums

DIRECT DEMOCRACY - There's an old Swiss saying: every time the referendum bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

OK, there's not really an old Swiss saying like that.

But there should be.

The referendum is the low-fat yogurt of direct democracy: pleasurable but guilt-free. You're not tearing some guy out of office mid-term, like in a recall. (You might call that firing squad democracy). You're not circumventing budgets and legislative checks and all semblance of accountability, as you are with a California initiative. (You might call that drunk-in-a-bar democracy)

A referendum is nothing but direct democracy. Someone objects to something the legislature does, and so the people step in to pass judgment. It doesn't get any more direct than that -- the people communicating directly with those they elect. No intermediaries. (The initiative, which is a way for the people to circumvent those they elect, is in this way quite indirect).  

Of course, California favors initiative-style direct democracy. We've had more initiatives filed in a year than we've had referendums filed in the history of the state (fewer than 85).

So to have three referendums filed in early summer - to reverse legislation on Internet sales tax, a fire fee, and redevelopment agencies -- is quite something. This is summer, the high season of California referendums.

It's not clear if all three will qualify. Referendums are hard - that's why there have been so few. The signature standard is high - the same as it is for an initiative statute - but there's less time, only 90 days to gather (as opposed to 150 days for an initiative). California would be better off if it lowered the signature standard for referendums, gave referendum sponsors more time to gather, or both.

If you worry about too many measures reaching the ballot, make initiatives less attractive by giving the legislature the ability to amend measures more easily - and making it a little harder to pass constitutional amendments by initiative. More referendums, fewer initiatives would be a move in the right direction.

(Joe Mathews is a journalist and Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, 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. Mathews blogs at foxandhoundsdaily.com where this column was first posted.) –cw

Tags: California, initiative, referendum, ballot, democracy, direct democracy

Vol 9 Issue 58
Pub: July 22, 2011