This week is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of direct democracy -- initiative, referendum, and recall -- in California.
Virtually media piece on the event has mentioned the fact that the process can only be used by people and groups that are rich enough to afford the $2 million-plus cost of qualifying measures (and the millions that have to be spent to win a campaign).
Which makes this the perfect time to ask a question: could California design a cheaper alternative to the signature gathering process?
James Fishkin, a Stanford professor who is an expert at what is called "deliberative democracy," says yes. Writing in the New York Times, he suggests using a deliberative body of citizens -- essentially a large citizens jury -- to decide what makes the ballot. He writes:
A real reform of the initiative process would let the people’s considered judgments — after a process of deliberation, and not just yes or no — set the agenda, not influential special interests that have the money to collect the petitions.
Something like this happened in the first democracy, in ancient Athens, where a deliberating microcosm chosen by lot, the Council of 500, set the agenda for the votes by everyone in the assembly.
If the ballot initiative process is to survive for another century, it must take into account the considered judgments of voters coming together to deliberate hard choices and not just cast a vote based on sound bites.
How could this work?
Citizens selected at random could be asked to convene in gropus and consider proposals for ballot initiatives from experts and groups across the political spectrum - and then decide which ones go on the ballot. Or the citizens group might try to come up with its own ideas.
Technology also might be used to propose and vet ideas, with people voting or being polled on-line.
The conversation about alternatives to signature gathering is new. But it's an important conversation for the state.