"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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Thursday, November 13, 2008


The U.S. elections prompted many observations internationally about the political system and the election process, including the drect democracy at play in the form of ballot initiatives at the state level. The following article presents a view from the U.K. on that subject. - editor

It'll get interesting when the Americans start voting

The undercard for the US elections may be dragging - but the main event will be unmissable, argues Chris Game.

Oct 31 2008 Agenda

My political boredom threshold is probably higher than most of yours, but I confess: I’m bored with the American election.

True, my boredom is purely temporary. Come the early hours of Wednesday November 5, and I’ll have exchanged my late night Stateside TV viewing from the baseball World Series to the state-by-state exit polls and Presidential predictions.

Can Obama really win big? Or will enough voters, privately in their polling booths, be sufficiently scared of the man’s programme, personality or pigmentation that, despite everything they’ve told opinion pollsters, they’ll go for the other guy?

Whatever the outcome, it will be absorbing, important and historic – but for now the main feature’s a bit of a drag. With US elections, though, there’s always a full supporting programme.

There are thousands of other elective offices at stake, but for me, better than all this representative stuff, is the raw direct democracy on offer. Voters in 36 states will give their views on 153 ballot propositions, initiatives and referrals. They themselves become policy makers on issues great and small, in a way that our governments rarely, if ever, trust us to be.

They will determine how taxes are raised, how major investment projects are funded, and whether their states should have lotteries, casinos, greyhound tracks, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, and liberal or restrictive abortion laws – while we struggle to have a say on the future of our central library.

Just as Sarah Palin’s candidacy has taught us at least where Alaska is and the kinds of things Alaskan rednecks like to do there, so a study of these propositions can inform us about aspects of America that would rarely otherwise attract our attention.

A majority of the 153 measures have been placed on the ballot paper by state legislators themselves. Most are not actually called referendums, but that’s what they are: issues or bills referred to electors for approval or veto before they become law.

There are, though, 61 propositions or initiatives that have forced their way on to the ballot paper following successful citizens’ petitions, in which campaigners seeking to change their state’s law or constitution have collected a specified number of validated signatures.

The biggest categories of propositions, as always, are those on taxes (24) and bond issues (16). But, contrary perhaps to expectation, not all the former are for tax reductions, nor do the tax cutters invariably win – especially if a worthy-sounding cause can be attached.

Thus a proposal to raise Minnesota’s sales tax rate is labelled ‘The Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage and Natural Areas Amendment’ in an unsubtle hint of the ecological depredation that could result from voters withholding their tax dollars. Likewise, Colorado has a citizens’ initiative, ‘Sales Tax for the Developmentally Disabled’.

More conventional are the state income tax propositions. The North Dakota chapter of Americans for Prosperity want theirs cut, while the Massachusetts Committee for Small Government want their 5.3 per cent rate abolished completely.

But not even tax cuts are necessarily self-seeking. An Oklahoma constitutional amendment, for example, seeks a property tax exemption for disabled veterans and their surviving spouses.

Municipal bonds are a fund-raising device many of our local government leaders ogle with undisguised envy, constrained as they are by our shackling Treasury Rules. If their US counterparts need capital for schools, highways, hospitals, airports or whatever, one option is to get voters to approve a bond issue – reminding them that, if they themselves invest, their interest income will be exempt from federal income tax.

Californian voters alone have three bond issues to consider: $10 billion towards a high-speed 800-mile rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and nearly $1 billion each for children’s hospitals and a fund assisting veterans to become homeowners.

Lotteries and casinos are other ballot regulars, and again proponents will emphasise the more morally uplifting causes that will gain from, say, extending casino hours to 24/7 and increasing maximum bets.

Thus the real beneficiaries of an Arkansas state lottery will apparently be the student recipients of college scholarships. And, if Colorado citizens agree to loosen gambling restrictions, the true winners will be everything from highway improvements and health care programmes to alternative fuels and the state minimum wage. Then there are the social issues, particularly interesting where they relate to UK practice. Perhaps most topical of all – given the recent cases of multiple sclerosis sufferer, Debby Purdy, and 23-year old rugby player, Dan James – is Washington state’s ‘Aid in Dying’ initiative.

Modelled on the now well-established practice in neighbouring Oregon, the proposal would allow mentally competent, terminally ill adults to request and administer a lethal overdose of medication.

Oregonians over the years have voted on more ballot propositions (350) than any other Americans. Among this year’s 12 measures is a proposed ‘Kids First Act’, under which teachers’ pay rises and job security would be based not on seniority, but on their classroom performance. Controversial certainly, but not remotely on the scale of abortion. In the US a woman has since 1974 had the constitutional right to have an abortion, but her state’s provision, or lack of it, will effectively determine her access to a clinic. Nowadays, most ballot propositions aim at further restricting availability. In California an emotively entitled ‘Sarah’s Law’ – after a 15-year old who died following a mishandled abortion – would prohibit abortion for minors until 48 hours after the physician has notified a parent or legal guardian.

More inventive and potentially far-reaching is a Colorado initiative attempting in effect to criminalise all abortion, through an Equal Rights constitutional amendment re-defining a ‘person’ as any human being from the moment of fertilisation. The implications seem massive – including for emergency contraception, IUD forms of contraception, and stem cell research – and it will surely be the most carefully watched of all this year’s proposition votes.

Finally, no examination of US direct democracy would be complete without mention of animal welfare, of which Americans are in some respects significantly more protective than we are.

A Massachusetts initiative thus proposes closing down the state’s two greyhound tracks and banning all dog racing for money. And a California proposition calls for an end to battery chicken farming and the crate-rearing of calves and sows.

Alaskans, though, as we have learned, view things differently: ‘wildlife is for us, and blasting things indiscriminately is the Alaskan way of life’. In an early statewide ballot just three days before Governor Sarah Palin was unveiled as John McCain’s running mate, Alaskans voted decisively to reject the Wolf and Bear Protection Act and continue the aerial hunting and shooting of free-ranging wolves, wolverines and grizzly bears.

You can guess which way the Governor campaigned and voted. But then, as my mother used to say, it would be a dull world indeed if we were all alike.

* Chris Game is lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

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