(originally published at Fox & Hounds Daily)
As Californians assess direct democracy on our system's 100 birthday, one criticism echoes from across the political spectrum: access to the system is limited because qualifying ballot initiatives, referenda, and recalls is such a costly process.
Solutions to this problem are being discussed. Some argue that permitting electronic signature gathering would reduce costs. Others suggest replacing the signature gathering process with an alternative measure of popular support (the most intriguing such proposal is Timothy Vande Krol's idea of letting parties put their initiative ideas on the primary ballot - and then advancing initiative ideas with the most support to the general election ballot). At a recent symposium in San Francisco, Nathan Gardels of the Think Long Committee said his organization was considering a proposal that would give a committee of 21 people - appointed by a variety of different California politicians and governing institutions with the goal of finding solutions to the state's long-term problems - the power to put initiatives on the ballot themselves.
These ideas are untested. But there's a solution that's already being used in Germany that has the virtue of simplicity:
Reimburse proponents for at least part of the costs of gathering signatures.
Here's the context. Direct democracy has been on the rise in the German states. Twenty years ago, only 2 of the 16 states had initiative and referendum. Now all 16 do.
The Germans, as they have adopted direct democracy, wanted to diminish the advantages of money in qualification. So six states -- Hamburg, Niedersachsen, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, Thueringen - adopted a rule that provides for reimbursements, from the state government directly, to cover the cost of signature gathering.
Here's how it works, according to Ralf-Uwe Beck and Daniel Schily of the German direct democracy group Mehr Demokratie, who described it to me during a recent visit to California.
The reimbursement only applies to measures that qualify. So once you're referendum or initiative has enough signatures for the ballot, the initiative proponents --- a committee in Germany -- are reimbursed for each signature you submitted that was found to be valid during the verification process. The reimbursement is about 20 cents per valid signature. That doesn't cover the whole cost, but much of it. (Signature costs are lower because time limits tend to be longer in Germany than they are in California and other U.S. states).
In some states, there's also a limited reimbursement for each vote that an initiative or referendum gains.
That may sound strange to American ears, but it makes perfect sense to Germans. Their thinking is that an initiative or a referendum is a public legislative process, not a private one. So the state has an obligation to bear at least some of the costs of public lawmaking - whether the lawmaking is done by members of a state parliament or by the citizens of the state themselves.
Should we do this in California? The immediate objection of most of us would be the cost, but really this would be negligible. Assuming a 20-cent reimbursement on a million valid signatures, you're talking about $200,000 in reimbursement for a successful campaign. Even if a dozen measures qualified in a year, you're talking about $2.4 million - a drop in the budget bucket.
The better objection would be that such money wouldn't be enough to help poorly funded initiatives, since $200,000 is only a fraction of the $2 million or so it costs to qualify. But a reimbursement program might work if it were combined with an extension of the time for qualifying a measure - from the current too-quick 5 months to something like a year or 18 months - to reduce the costs of gathering. (And of course, expanded access to the California initiative process must be combined with reforms that force initiatives to pay for themselves and make them subject to legislative amendment, which is how things work in many other states and countries, including Germany).
With reimbursement and more time, even poorly funded citizens' groups might have a shot at playing the rich man's initiative game.