Closing the ‘Democracy Deficit’ in the EU and US

By Steven Hill, June 17, 2010, Social Europe Journal

My recent research trip to Switzerland with a group of other Americans was enlightening, in more ways than one. Besides admiring the great beauty of the Swiss mountains, lakes and picturesque cities, it was a chance to study in depth the Alpine jewel’s system of direct democracy (initiative and referendum, or I&R). With both the European Union and the United States facing ‘democracy deficits’ that undermine government credibility among their populations, direct democracy offers great potential to close this gap.

The Swiss have evolved an impressive system that fosters a ‘noisy collaboration’ between the people and their elected representatives. Other places, like California where I live, also have I&R, but comparing Switzerland and California is instructive because the Swiss model is impressive while in California direct democracy teeters on being dysfunctional. The devil is in the details, and those details are crucial if direct democracy is to be brought to the EU and US levels.

In California, initiative campaigns are mounted by wealthy interests who gamble that it is better to take their chance with a popular vote rather than trying to lobby their pet project through the legislature. It takes about 750,000 signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot – almost 3 percent of the state-wide population – and about three-fifths that for a non-constitutional statute.

That is an extremely high threshold to meet, so in actual practice the only players able to qualify an initiative for the ballot are wealthy individuals or organisations that can write a large check to the professional companies that employ an army of circulators paid about $3 per signature. It has been years since a state-wide initiative has qualified through the work of volunteers.

Because of these dynamics, direct democracy in California has been captured by wealthy special interests, which usually are looking either to feather their own nests or give a thumb in the eye to state or local government. Even when their measures lose, they have put the entire state in play, polarising the electorate and forcing non-wealthy interests to play defence and consume their scarce resources in a battle to stop Big Money from steamrolling the state. Ironically, this kind of dynamic is the exact opposite as that envisioned by California Governor Hiram Johnson, who in 1911 created this vehicle to allow the people to counter powerful railroad tycoons and other special interests.

But in Switzerland, the political leaders have crafted a better practice. They have a ‘proposal-counter proposal’ system in which, once an initiative or referendum qualifies for the ballot, the government is given a chance to either pass that law itself or put a counter-proposal on the ballot. Similarly, if the government passes a law, the people can put their own counter-proposal on the ballot or try to overturn the law.

This ‘proposal-counter proposal’ dynamic does a few good things. For starters, it unleashes a process that is less polarising and fosters a healthier give-and-take centred on more nuanced positions. It is not so ‘thumb in your eye’. That in turn facilitates a process that fosters more of an ongoing dialogue between the people and their elected representatives in a way that, over time, forges a broader consensus on issues that range from the mundane to the significant (such as restricting commercial trucking through the environmentally sensitive Alps, or a ban on Islamic minarets).

But a leading reason this dynamic works in Switzerland but not in California is because in Switzerland you need to collect far fewer signatures to qualify your measure for the ballot – about 100,000 signatures for initiatives, a bit more than one percent of the population – and 50,000 for a referendum. The Swiss also allow a longer period of time for collecting those signatures, up to 18 months, compared to a mere five months in California. This means non-wealthy interests can compete, able to use the I&R process to challenge a legislative law or advance their own law. And it means paid circulators are not needed to gather signatures, it can be done with all volunteer labour.

While lower qualifying thresholds result in a few more measures making it to the ballot, the amount is not substantial since even gathering one percent is a sizable undertaking. In California, it would mean collecting about 370,000 signatures for a constitutional amendment, not an effort that a few friends can decide to undertake over too many drinks in a bar. But that is low enough that serious individuals or groups lacking deep pockets can play in the game.

The Swiss model is not perfect. Like California, when it comes to the actual I&R campaigns Switzerland has inadequate campaign finance laws. They do not provide any public financing for underfunded campaigns, instead allowing private money to dominate. A billionaire like Christoph Blocher, a top leader in the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, can exert great influence and skew the public debate. The Swiss also have no donation reporting laws to speak of, resulting in a near-complete lack of transparency over who is giving how much money. At least California has decent campaign reporting requirements.

The public interest in any I&R campaign is best served when a robust public debate ensues where voters can hear as equally as possible from a range of viewpoints. At minimum, free media time should be provided for all significant viewpoints. Public financing for all campaigns, pro and con, should be considered (all campaigns could be required to pay 15% of the amount they spend on their own campaign into a common fund that is distributed to the underfunded campaigns). A free marketplace of ideas stimulated by public financing and free media time would foster the concordance process.

The European Union could close its democracy deficit by incorporating a well-designed I&R process into its structure. ‘Well-designed’ would mean: 1) a low number of qualifying signatures; 2) a sufficient period of time for gathering those signatures; and 3) public financing and free media time for pro and con campaigns. Fortunately, at least a few people in Brussels seem to be listening. The recently signed Lisbon Treaty created a European Citizens’ Initiative, which allows one million EU citizens – 0.2 percent of the electorate – the right to propose a new law or regulation to the European Commission via signatures collected over a 12-month period. This is the same right that the directly-elected European Parliament enjoys. I am still waiting for the United States Congress to grant American citizens this same right.

Outside the doors of the United States Senate is a medallion painted on the ceiling inscribed with the words ‘You are the Rulers and the Ruled’. The 21st century may see representative government evolve into a fuller democracy in which citizens will have the right to have their say on substantive issues much more than in the past. If I&R is designed correctly, the representatives have nothing to fear from ‘we the people’. Indeed, the rulers and the ruled can participate in a noisy but healthy collaboration that will reinvigorate this age-old invention of representative government.