Initiative & Referendum Process affirmed, critiqued at historic San Francisco conference & forum

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 07-Aug-2010

The U.S. Conference on Initiative and Referendum, and the 2010 Global Forum  that followed, likely resulted in the most substantive multi-partisan (or, as sponsors liked to say, “transpartisan”) gathering of knowledgeable people focused on direct democracy at any one place in modern human history. The San Francisco gathering, which concluded this week, was diverse and bracing in breadth and inclusiveness.

American speakers included conservatives like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute, and John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, libertarians such as Paul Jacob of Citizens in Charge Foundation (a forum co-sponsor) and William Redpath of the Libertarian Party, and progressives/liberals such as Ralph Nader and former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel.

Those who gathered were, at the very least, ideologically eclectic. Registered Democrats were roughly 35% of the crowd. Republicans and libertarians combined amounted to barely 20% of attendees, with Greens and independents present in impressive numbers. While Americans constituted three-quarters of the participants, one-fourth of the audience came from other nations.

Jacob’s group presented detailed studies during the seminar. Among other findings, Citizens in Charge Foundation documented deep support for the initiative process in every American state, cast doubt on presumptions that monied interests generally get their way in ballot campaigns, and concluded that fraud is relatively rare in petition campaigns.

Other Americans speaking at the conference included two of the nation’s leading academic authorities on I&R, Professor John Matsusaka of the University of California’s Initiative and Referendum Institute, and Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies. Both were sympathetic to the processes of direct democracy, while recognizing the need for improvements. While a distinct minority among attendees, critics of direct democracy had opportunities to criticize the initiative device, including Michael Salerno of the UC Hastings law faculty.

Fund was a star attraction at the event. He joined a panel of American journalists who analyzed coverage of direct democracy. Much of that discussion wound up focusing on the impact of technological change on American newsrooms, particularly newspapers.

Others on the panel were Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee, film producer and blogger/journalist/activist Jane Hamsher, media consultant Bettina Inclan and this writer. Joel Fox of Fox & Hounds Daily  moderated that session. Paul Elias of the Associated Press, another veteran of I&R news coverage, moderated a panel of initiative activists from across the ideological spectrum.

A personal highlight for this writer came when, at the conclusion of the news media panel, attendees were asked whether they agreed – after listening to discussion and presentation of a thumbnail sketch of poor popular understanding of American political traditions – with the proposition that civics education should be encouraged. Interactive keypad voting led to greater than 90% endorsement of that idea – the highest level of agreement participants gave to any single suggestion in the five days of discussions.

Technicians from the so-called “initiative industry,” like Tim Mooney of Silver Bullet Inc., and Richard Arnold of National Voter Outreach, defended the role of political professionals in the process.

Investigations of emerging technology with potential to broaden the impact of direct democratic governance were among highlights of the proceedings. While California Secretary of State Debra Bowen expressed both concern and hope when it comes to electronic signature-gathering, Jude Barry of Verafirma told CapitolBeatOK, “The terrible irony is that although California is home to Silicon Valley, our state government is slow to embrace new technology even when it’s been successfully used for decades in other industries.”

Bruno Kaufmann of Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe was a major organizer of the last half of the gathering, the “Global Forum.” The San Francisco event was the third such gathering IRI Europe has helped to convene.

Joe Mathews and Kaufmann served as co-presidents of the forum. Mathews is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, one of the co-sponsors of the conference and forum. He is a co-author of “California Crackup” and the author of “The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy” (2006). Both men spoke frequently and/or moderated panels during the event.

Kaufmann reflected, during the proceedings, that “Direct democracy decides on substantive issues, not on people.” He also observed that the process “empowers people, not governments.” He stressed the difference between plebiscites (or referred measures) presented to voters by governments, and the initiative process, in which citizens drive the process.

Other authorities from around the globe presented detailed power points and/or summaries of scholarly papers, including Prof. David Altman of the University of Santiago (Chile) and Rolf Rauschenbach of the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil). Altman is writing a major analysis of global direct democracy, to be published in 2011.

Long-time advocates of direct democracy from abroad were present, including Andreas Gross of the council of Europe (Social Democrat), who is a member of the Swiss Parliament. Gross was among the strong proponents of pure direct democracy, although he lauded the advantages of Switzerland’s system. That approach takes one to two years to unfold from conception to popular vote, and allows for a form of indirect initiative in which members of the Legislature can directly effect development of an initiative idea.

Also addressing the gathering was former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska. Gravel has been a long-standing advocate of a national voter initiative process. He delivered one major address at the U.S. Conference on Saturday, then chaired a panel posing the question, “Is America Ready?” His panel included Evan Ravitz of, political consultant Mike Arno, Bulgarian direct democracy leader Atanas Slavov, and Michael Freeman of the Transamerican Alliance for a National Consensus.

Gravel ran for the presidency in 2008, critizing both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from the Left. Ralph Nader, who has run four times for the presidency, asserts Gravel’s “National Initiative for Democracy” is “the most fundamental proposal I have ever seen or read about by any candidate in major party in the United States.”

Gravel, an ardent critic of American foreign policy, details the national initiative as he conceives it in his book “Citizen Power: A Mandate for Change” (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2008).

The forum concluded with the following statement in support of modern direct democracy, representing a broad consensus among the 88% or so of attendees who support the initiative and referendum processes:

“Greetings from San Francisco and the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. 

“We are from all corners of the world and from all walks of life. Among us are scholars, journalists, activists, petitioners, philanthropists, artists, elected officials, election administrators, non-profit managers, lawyers, businesspeople, and farmers. We are members of dozens of political parties – a truly transpartisan group.

“We have met for five nights and five days to discuss direct democracy at a forum that was free and open to anyone in the world who wished to attend. 

“We considered more than 200 ideas, suggestions and principles related to direct democracy that were offered by those in attendance. We debated these ideas. And we measured our opinions on these ideas using advanced polling technology. The ideas and principles that attracted the most support were compiled and then considered by a committee charged with expressing the consensus of our gathering.
“Here is our statement: 

“Direct democracy is one important way to bring the people into representative government at all levels — local, state, national, and transnational. It is a process that works best in places where freedom and human rights are protected. To improve direct democracy, we must continue to learn from each other, bridging boundaries of nationality, ideology and party. 

“Having gathered here in San Francisco, we also must note that California’s initiative process needs greater attention and perhaps improvement, because the reputation of the state’s direct democracy is negatively and unfairly affecting perceptions of direct democracy around the world. 

“We agree that three values must be applied to direct democracy everywhere: transparency, open access, and deliberation. 

“1. Transparency: At every stage of each direct democratic action, and in every aspect of the initiative and referendum process, citizens have a right to know as much as possible about the people and money behind each measure, so long as individuals are protected against coercion and retribution for their votes and for their signatures. 

“2. Open access. Access to the process, especially the qualification of measures for ballots, should be based on measures of substantial popular support — and should not be dependent on money or on the sanction or approval of public officials or political parties or interest groups. 

Technology and other innovations should be fully incorporated into the process consistent with the values of expanding access and ensuring transparency. 

“3. Deliberation. A deliberative process that is driven by and managed by citizens themselves should be part of every direct democracy. We believe that the most important factors in deliberation are the ability to hear multiple views from all sides — and the time to consider each direct democratic measure fully. 

“We cannot stress enough the importance of sufficient time to the health of direct democracy. We are concerned that many direct democratic systems, particularly those in the United States, fail to provide the time necessary for thorough deliberation and open access.
“We debated dozens of other ideas on which there was a wide range of opinions. We did not include those ideas in this document, but they may be found on the forum web site.

“We see this statement, the San Francisco Declaration on Direct Democracy, as a first draft of global guidelines for best practices in initiative and referendum. We welcome the suggestions, corrections, and contributions of the world.”

NOTE: We are grateful to photographer Steve Rhodes for his help in coverage of the Global Forum.