"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Two articles about the current measures on the ballot in California that illustrate the need for reform of the initiative & referendum process in that state as well as many other states in order to make the process less driven by big money and more accessable to the people. - EDITOR

A long way from the grassroots

John Diaz
Sunday, October 12, 2008

There is no big secret to the formula for manipulating California's initiative process. Find a billionaire benefactor with the ideological motivation or crass self-interest to spend the $1-million plus to get something on the ballot with mercenary signature gatherers. Stretch as far as required to link it to the issue of the ages (this is for the children, Prop. 3) or the cause of the day (this is about energy independence and renewable resources, Props. 7 and 10). If it's a tough sell on the facts, give it a sympathetic face and name such as "Marsy's Law" (Prop. 9, victims' rights and parole) or "Sarah's Law" (Prop. 4, parental notification on abortion). Prepare to spend a bundle on soft-focus television advertising and hope voters don't notice the fine print or the independent analyses of good-government groups or newspaper editorial boards.

Ten of the 12 statewide measures on the Nov. 4 ballot came through the initiative process, which was created nearly a century ago to offset the grip of Southern Pacific Railroad on the California Legislature. Today, the initiative process is no longer the antidote to special interests and the moneyed class; it is their vehicle of choice to attempt to get their way without having to endure the scrutiny and compromise of the legislative process.

Five initiatives have been buoyed by a single wealthy contributor. Most audaciously, T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman, bankrolled Prop. 10, which asks Californians to borrow billions to fuel natural gas vehicles. Pickens happens to be the founder of Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which - you guessed it - supplies natural gas to fleets of vehicles. Other initiative backers appear driven more by philosophy than profit. George Soros, the New York financier and liberal activist, is the bucks behind Prop. 5, which would increase drug treatment as an alternative to prison. Peter Sperling, a devout environmentalist and son of University of Phoenix founder, is supplying the funding for Prop. 7, which would increase the state's commitment to renewable energy. Major environmental groups, however, oppose it as unrealistic and sloppily drafted.

Then there are Props. 6 and 9, the tough on (selected) crime trust-fund babies of Henry T. Nicholas III, an Orange County billionaire tech executive who has been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with securities fraud and drug-related offenses. But Nicholas, who has funded other anti-crime campaigns in the past, has nothing to fear from his Prop. 6: It's aimed at toughening penalties on gangs, illegal immigrants and criminals trying to get into Section 8 housing - not CEOs gone bad.

It's time to get past the illusion of the initiative process as a grassroots domain. As much attention as Hollywood actor Brad Pitt received for his $100,000 contribution against Proposition 8 - the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage - recent campaign disclosure reports showed that conservative activist Maggie Gallagher donated $1.45 million to Yes on 8.

Having sat through many hours of meetings with the proponents and opponents of these propositions, I say: When in doubt, vote no. Most of these measures - such as Prop. 2, which would require farmers to put chickens in more spacious cages - do not belong on the ballot. They should be resolved in the Legislature, where competing interests can be heard and balanced. Voters should reject all non-capital-investment proposals that commit the state to annual spending without offering a funding source: Prop. 5 (drug treatment, $465 million), Prop. 6 (tougher sentencing, $900-plus million) and Prop. 9 (victims rights and parole, "hundreds of millions," according to the Legislative Analyst).

Only one measure on the Nov. 4 ballot truly fits Gov. Hiram Johnson's early 1900s vision of "direct democracy" as a way to bypass a corrupt and power-mad Legislature: Prop. 11, which would strip lawmakers of the ability to draw their own district boundaries. Trust me: Legislators are not going to voluntarily cede that duty to an independent commission. Ever.

But the question is: Will bleary-eyed voters have the attention spans to get to Prop. 11? In addition to the 12 statewide measures, San Franciscans will be staring at 22 local propositions, on everything from decriminalizing prostitution to allowing the city to take over electricity service from PG&E to naming the sewage treatment plant after George W. Bush.

I'm waiting anxiously for the initiative reforms proposed by the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies: Limit contributions, increase transparency and offer an opportunity for proposals that gain the required signatures to go to the Legislature for a final shot before going to the ballot for an all-or-nothing decision.

All they need is billionaire benefactor. Unfortunately, good-government initiatives don't do much to feed the ego or line the pocketbook.

John Diaz is The Chronicle's editorial page editor. You can e-mail him atjdiaz@sfchronicle.com.


Most of the ballot propositions should be defeated

Thinking it through, By RICHARD REEB

Source: http://www.desertdispatch.com/opinion/ballot_4478___article.html/california_defeated.html

California’s voters will be inundated in the remaining days of the campaign with flyers, telephone calls and e-mails urging them to vote “yes” or “no” on the 12 ballot propositions to be decided on Nov. 4. Even though some organization claims to have endorsed or rejected a measure, that neither tells us very much about it nor provides very much help with understanding what we’re voting on.

But such communications are perfectly understandable for various reasons. First, there are a dozen measures for our consideration, which range in length from one sentence (Proposition 8: Affirming natural marriage) to 21 pages (Proposition 4: Adolescent abortion waiting period). It took eight pages for the legislative analyst to explain Proposition 5 (Nonviolent Drug Offenses), which is 17 pages long, and six pages to explain Proposition 7 (Renewable Energy Generation), which is seven pages long. That’s a lot to absorb for the millions of us who are not legislators.

Second, besides being numerous and lengthy, these propositions are inherently complicated. This is so not only because they are necessarily written in legalese, with which most voters are unfamiliar; they also include multiple provisions. That’s often the nature of laws but more accurately the nature of the bureaucratic laws that are the curse of the modern administrative state. Plus, these measures are sometimes the product of a process in which various interests obtain provisions to suit them as the price of their support for the entire measure.

Third, we are presented with an all-or-nothing decision that forces us to accept or reject the measure in toto even though there are sections that should be left out or included. We lack the flexibility of legislators who can amend to strike or add provisions that detract from or improve the bill.

But, since 1910, when the Progressive movement brought us direct democracy in this State, voting on these propositions has been part of our electoral responsibilities. The very feature that gave rise to this reform, namely, legislative dereliction, has not been overcome. Indeed, politicians seeking to avoid making hard decisions like it when the matter is thrown to the voters, for that lets them off the hook.

In spite of all these difficulties, direct initiatives (measures initiated by citizens outside the legislature) have often corrected bad public policy. The most famous example, of course, is Proposition 13, the property-tax-cutting measure approved by the voters in 1978. Besides such limits on taxing and spending, strong law-enforcement measures that cannot make it through our Democrat-dominated legislature can be enacted directly by the voters. Propositions 6 (Police and law enforcement funding, 13 pages) and 9 (Victims’ rights, four pages) fall into that category.

All bond measures have to be approved by the voters. These include Proposition 1 (High speed rail), 3 (Children’s hospitals), 10 (Alternative fuel vehicles) and 12 (Veteran housing loans). And all constitutional amendments must also be approved, such as Propositions 1, 4, 8, 9 and (once again) a measure (11) to take the power to draw legislative district lines from the legislature and assign it to a special commission.

There are two energy-related statutes on the ballot. These include the aforementioned Proposition 7, as well as Proposition 10. They are among 10 initiatives, half of which are constitutional amendments and half of which are statutes. Also in the latter group is Proposition 2, Standards for confining farm animals.

The first part of the 143-page booklet includes summaries, analyses and arguments pro and con. Well over half of the remainder contains the full text of the measures, including existing, revised and deleted language. Winston Churchill once said, “The devil is in the details,” and he wasn’t kidding. The reading is truly forbidding, especially when it is in small type, single spaced, double columns. More power to anyone who attempts, much less finishes, that project.

Still, we must decide. I think “yes” votes are in order for Proposition 4, mandating that adolescent girls inform a family member of their impending abortion; 6, guaranteeing funding for local law enforcement; 8, protecting male-female marriages; 9, affirming victims’ rights in the justice system; and 11, opening up legislative elections to real competition.

“No” votes should be cast for all bond measures (1, 3, 12), which undermine California’s currently precarious credit; alternative energy schemes (7, 10), which subsidize uneconomical and unproven technology; and misguided feel-good reforms that comfort animals and drive up the cost of production (2) or coddle drug peddlers in the name of “rehabilitation” (5).


Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause” (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at rhreeb@verizon.net.

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