Coming to California, designing a brand new initiative process

August 11, 2010 News

Why would Europeans be coming to California, seeking advice?

Well, a group of European scholars and ECI-Campaign activists were coming last week to learn as much as they could about the Californian initiative process. Our goal? Learn what to do (and perhaps not to do) as we design a new initiative process of our own in Europe. At the same time Americans show an increasing interest, as the recent New York Times piece shows, covering the European Citizen’s Initiative, including ECI-Campaign. Enjoy reading the report by Carsten Berg, coordinator of the ECI-Campaign, on some of the Californian lessons to learn for a citizen-friendly designed ECI.

As only a few know, California has a 99 years old experience with direct citizens’ involvement. The instrument in question is the Californian Citizens’ Initiative, also called the “initiative-process”, permitting the people to introduce legislation and even put a measure on the ballot (referendum). Similar to ECI, about one million citizens need to sign such an initiative in California – the precise participation quorum depends on the last election turnout.

Thanks to our study tour leader Joe Mathews from New America Foundation, we had the chance to meet with legislators, authors of citizens’ initiatives, consultants, scholars, election administrators and others in Sacramento and San Francisco to talk about how the Californians conduct the initiative process.  We could directly observe and learn what it needs to run a Campaign, how signatures are gathered and verified and how the Californian Government deals with citizens’ initiatives. After this study trip we presented ECI-Campaign at the Global Forum in San Francisco and ran a workshop on transnational democracy together with Angelika Gardiner and MEP Gerald Häfner, one of the four rapporteurs in the European Parliament.

California’s love-hate relationship with citizens’ initiatives

Californians have a love-hate relationship towards their “initiative-process”. They strongly support it and would never give it up, but they don’t like how it is conducted, as we learn from Kim Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation and a great person, who has opened our eyes for California’s “initiative process” through our entire stay. See her article about the  “Ten Things to Know About California’s Initiative Process”.
According to a recent study Californians think, that there are too many initiatives on the ballot at one time, and say the wording of initiatives is too complicated and confusing for voters, in order to understand what happens if the initiative passes.

Another fundamental problem and reason why many Californians want to reform their “initiative-process” has to do with the fact that it is too much driven by money. Essentially this is due to the too short time limit of only five months to collect the required number of signatures. Only the big and very wealthy people/organisations can afford to manage to collect the minimum number of signatures within such a short time period. For the European Citizens’ Initiative we have learned, that we need to extend the time limit of one year, as proposed by the EU-Commission and Council, to at least 18-24 months, as is the case for example in Switzerland, where the process is less money driven and much more open for a deeper deliberative communication process due to this different notion of time for the initiative process.

In California it takes at least one million U$ to collect the required number of signatures. Californian ballot-initiative organizers even pay up to 150 million U$ in just one single campaign, especially for TV-adds and paid signature collectors. The latter are given up to 12 $ per signature. Grass-root NGOs without money fail to collect the required signatures in such a short time period. However while you cannot win an initiative campaign without money, we have also learned that you cannot win with money alone. A rich person with a million dollars is able to collect the required signatures. But it always takes a broad coalition of support for the final vote. Without a supporting alliance any initiative fails at the ballot box.

In Sacramento we analysed a concrete citizens initiative example, the case of Proposition 16 on the June 2010 ballot. A company alone, Pacific Gas and Electric, led a 46 million dollar effort (!) to make it more difficult for Californians to obtain public power services in their communities.  Opponents raised and spent only less than $100,000. “This was clearly a David and Goliath contest in money terms, yet the measure was still defeated, with 47 percent of voters voting yes, and 53 percent no” explains Kim Alexander.

Making use of an E-signature will reduce the costs for organizers

We also got in touch with the newest technological developments in California and visit Wikimedia Foundation, the place of Wikipedia. There we reflect how their participatory way of developing communication and knowledge could be used in the preparatory phase for citizens-initiatives. Moreover ECI-Campaign is present on the San Francisco panel “Are You Dreaming of an Electronic Signature?”. Here we get to know Michael Marubio, co-founder of Verafirma, explaining their invention of an electronic signature for an iPhone, which is already tested for voter registration in California. We think this could be a tool to make ECI more usable, citizen friendly and last but not least, reduce costs for any future ECI-organizers. See how it works in their video:

In Europe we don’t have e-collecting systems in place, only electronic voting systems as for example in elections in Estonia and for referendums in Switzerland. But collecting verifiable signatures in an electronic way is a much bigger practical challenge, as in most member states there is no population or voter registry, that includes signatures of its citizens, in order to compare them with the respective signature expressed on a statement of support of a citizens’ initiative.

Citizens’ initiative text translated in seven languages!

We also get to know the Secretary of State, Debra Bowen,  the chief elections officer of California, and learn that they prepare information guides in the state’s seven most common languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese) including the text of the citizens’ initiatives as well as analyses and arguments for and against each measure. We are wondering why this should not be guaranteed for a European Citizens’ Initiative as well? Living in a European Union with more than 23 languages, it remains inconceivable, why Council and the EU-Commission have not taken up this idea. The European Parliament’s debate sounds more promising here.

Our Workshop in San Francisco on Transnational Democracy

We started with the observation, that today many political and economic issues have gained transnational characteristics and, therefore, can no longer be tackled on the national level alone.

In order to assure the capacity to shape modern politics, national governments feel the pressure and need to cooperate within the international and transnational order. New international institutions were therefore created such as  the IMF, the World Bank or the EU.

But this, at the same time, seriously decreases the capacity for national citizenries to participate within the political process, as these organisations lack democratic legitimacy. Decision-  and policy-making processes on a growing number of crucial issues are shifted to new transnational layers of political authority, where they are excluded from national public control. This “democratic dilemma” challenges the current development of democracy. Here ECI was strongly welcomed and appreciated in our San Francisco workshop as the first participatory democracy element at transnational level in world history.

One of our participants, Joel Marsden, went a step further and calls for a global vote, he produced an interesting film, for which he travelled all around the world, see the trailer:

As a good background source on Transnational Democracy, you can download the book “Global Citizens in Charge”, in which Saskia Hollander assesses “The prospects for Transnational Direct Democracy”.