(cross posted at Fox & Hounds Daily)
A couple weeks back, I moderated a couple different events comparing the initiative process in Switzerland (where it originated) and in California. What makes these two systems different? And why should it matter?
Here is the answer, in essence:
The Swiss have integrated their initiative process with their government - and kept their initiative process separate from their political and election systems. We Californians have done exactly the opposite. We integrated our initiative process with our politics and elections - but have kept it separate from our government.
1. On the question of integrating with government: the Swiss initiative process includes the government and legislature in every step. The legislature can negotiate with initiative proponents on compromise measure. The legislature can put a counter-proposal right on the ballot next to each initiative. The entire Swiss system is set up as a conversation between the people - as they express themselves via initiative and referendum - and their government.
In California, we make the initiative process a separate entity. There's no process for having the legislature adopt an initiative. And the legislative body is barred from amending any statute passed by initiative (unless the initiative text explicitly permitted such amendments).
2. On elections: The Swiss explicitly keep votes on initiatives and referendums separate from their candidate elections. Candidates are elected every four years. The initiative and referendum votes in Switzerland are on an entirely different calendar, with ballots cast three or four times a year. Why so frequent? By having more ballots, the number of measures on the ballot can be kept low - five or less always, and usually no more than 2 or 3 - so that each measure gets plenty of attention and a real public debate.
Californians, of course, throw initiatives and referendum onto already long statewide ballots with candidates. This means we have to make dozens of decisions when we go to the polls, and don't have enough time to consider each ballot measure in its own right.
There's plenty about the Swiss system that wouldn't fit here (their financial disclosure is terrible). But on these two principles - integrating the initiative process with government but keeping it separate from regular elections - I wish California were a little bit more Swiss.