The United States & Direct Democracy

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

29 September 2014

I know this post is about the United States, but before I kick into gear on Direct Democracy in the US, I want to quickly enumerate some information and insights on Swiss Direct Democracy.

Switzerland & Direct Democracy: September 28th marked the third time this year the Swiss had the opportunity to vote on initiatives and/or referenda that were brought to a national vote by citizens who collected signatures.  This action is at the core of Switzerland being a blended Direct and Representative Democracy.  There are many MANY books and doctoral theses that analyze the Swiss system – so I’m not going to do that.  Instead, I’m going to share a couple of observations on the effect of this blended system.

Power to the people – because the people can bring a proposal to a vote through initiative or can turn over any legislative decision through referendum, the people of Switzerland have a tremendous impact on Swiss law.  What I’ve seen is that, in some cases, legislators do a lot to bring together stakeholders so that the laws they craft won’t be overturned.  Legislators also have an incentive to get key legislation done prior to the citizens doing it in a way they may not want.  Lastly, what I’ve also seen is that the development of new laws can take a long time.  This is because of the deliberative process and also because many initiatives that eventually pass are evolved from previous initiatives that failed but where the authors learned and evolved their approach.

On September 28th, the two initiatives on which Swiss citizens voted were*:

  • A health insurance proposal for a unified health insurance fund (i.e. – “single payer” as we know it in the US)
  • A reduction in the VAT paid in restaurants from 8% down to 2.5%
    (*This comes from the Swiss Government website here.)

US & Direct Democracy: In the video I did at the outset of my time here in Switzerland, I talked about coming from Washington State – where we, too, have a blend of Direct and Representative Democracy.  Washington, however, is only one among 27 US states with that blend.  What follows is a breakdown of the states, observations on how the states “do” direct democracy and some of the key initiatives/referenda coming up for the Nov 2nd vote.

This interactive map of states with referenda and initiatives from the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California shows which state has which structure.  Of the 27 states with some form of Direct Democracy, 23 have initiatives and 24 have referenda.

I know that there has been some question about the signature requirements in Switzerland.  In the US, the signature requirements vary by state and are based on either a % of the voters, a geographic distribution of signatures, or some blend of the two.  This chart from the National Conference of State Legislators shows the state by state initiative signature requirements from 2012.

For example, for the 2012 election:

  • Alaska’s 2012 signature formula was both volume and geography-based.  Specifically, to qualify for the ballot, an initiative required signatures that equaled at least 10% of the total votes cast in the previous general election.  For 2012, that equaled 25,875 signatures (out of a population of 736,000 citizens in total).  Geographically, those signatures needed to include at least 7% of those who voted in the previous general election in at least 75% of the state’s 40 house districts. (In other words – in at least 30 districts, they needed to have the # of signatures be at least 7% the total number of those who voted in the previous general election in that same district).
  • At the high end, California (population approximately 38M) required 504,760 signatures for a statutory initiative (5% of votes) and 807,615 signatures for a constitutional initiative (8% of votes cast for governor in the previous election).
  • And right in the middle, Washington State (population approximately 7M) required 241,000 signatures for an initiative to make it onto the ballot (8% of the votes cast for governor in the last election).

2014 Ballot measures in the United States: This year, there are 154 total ballot measures – 142 of which will be on the November ballot (some already had their votes in the primary elections).  Of those, only 35 are citizen generated initiatives.  The Ballotpedia website has a collection of information on the topics and locations for those ballots.  The graphic to the left shows the breakdown of those 154 measures.

And on this page, Ballotpedia lays all of those measures out succinctly by state. Selected and highly simplified examples of ballot measures for the people this year include:

  • Arkansas & South Dakota: Increases minimum wage
  • Colorado & Oregon: Requires Genetically Modified Organism labeling
  • Massachusetts: Repeals a law increasing gas tax according to inflation
  • Oregon: Legalizes marijuana
  • Washington State: Requires background checks on all gun purchases

I encourage you to look at the full list of ballot measures.  What really strikes me are the number of issues with which both of our citizenries are wrestling (ie – wages & equality, food labeling and/or food security, legalizing various substances, taxes, etc…).

What also strikes me is how well this illustrates the aspect of our Sister Republics around the balance of power between the federal and state/cantonal governments.  Fundamentally – we are much more alike than we are different!

Here are some questions/thoughts for you to consider.  Feel free to share your thoughts on the Embassy Facebook page,on my Twitter account or below in the comments.

  • What impact do the initiatives in our respective countries actually have on the issues of the day?
  • How are the environments changing for initiatives with both increased investments from interested parties AND with the checks and balances of the courts and federal law?

Let me know what you think or if YOU have any questions!  We can learn more about all of this together!