Some say you can never have too much wealth or too much good health, but can you have too much democracy?
California has one of the world’s most robust systems for allowing citizens to propose laws directly to voters, bypassing elected officials. Almost every election includes a handful of state and local ballot measures that allow voters to weigh in on topics that range from the deeply personal (marriage law) to the highly wonky (supermajority requirements).
Joe Mathews, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, moderated a panel at San Francisco’s Fort Mason conference center that drew experts from as far away as Sweden together to ask how, and if, California’s 100-year-old experiment in direct democracy can continue.
“Our view is that citizens ought to be in charge of their government,” said Paul Jacob, president of the non-profit organization Citizens in Charge, during a panel discussion about the state’s voter initiative process. “Every American at every level ought to have a direct check on government … We all like democracy, and frankly, we all like it a lot more when we win than when we lose.”
“This is the people’s lawmaking arena, and we need to make it work in the people’s interest,” said Kim Alexander, the president and founder of the California Voter Foundation. We need to “improve initiative disclosure and make sure that people have easy access to the information that’s needed to make informed choices.”
Alexander said that voters can’t be expected to do all the research on every ballot measure but that the public could learn a lot about complicated ballot measures by simply following the money. She said that she would like to see a list of the top donors on each side of a campaign published in the sample ballot and made more readily available.
“It’s one of the best shortcuts we can provide voters,” she said. “Where we need to pay attention is to make sure the process emulates the lawmaking process as much as it can.”
Bruno Kaufmann, a political scientist and journalist who has worked for the Swiss Broadcasting Company, spoke in favor of direct democracy but remained critical of California’s process.
“What you have is really a hammer and not a screwdriver,” said Kaufmann. “What the California system allows is to mirror conflict, but it’s not so much about dealing with conflict and not so much about solving conflict.”
Kaufman added that the California system is in need of innovation and that it’s crucial that more people become involved in the electoral process. There’s a real test question for the initiative process, Kaufmann said. “Are we happy losers or not?” he asked. “If we are not happy losers, then it is not a good system.”
But James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego, suggested that the problem may lie in having too many choices.
“There’s a desire to have the process be easier,” said Fowler. “We vote a lot more than people in other countries. This is one of the reasons why our turnout rate is lower.”
Fowler described an experiment in which one group of people were given a choice between three types of jelly and another group was given the choice between 20.
“So this is America: surely the people are going to be happier who have the choice between 20 jars of jelly,” he said. “The interesting thing was people who had the choice between three jars of jelly did pick one of them. People who had the choice between 20 jars of jelly walked away from the table.”
“I personally feel we are at the limits of how much decision-making the average person can really take and pay attention to,” said Fowler.
Fowler told the audience that as the voting process goes online he is concerned that the vital component of human interaction around civic issues will diminish. But he said that if the online space can recreate the colonial town hall meeting online, our democracy can be enhanced in a way that energizes more people than simply those who participate online.
“What we’d like to see is the process made easier,” said Jacob of Citizens in Charge. “You’ve got to have a certain amount of faith – not that the public is always right – but that the public has a right.”
*Photos by Gene X. Hwang.