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Initiatives

In this volume Kriesi distinguishes carefully between popular or citizen initiatives and referendums, arguing that they follow different political logics (see also Geissel in this volume). Referendums are top-down instruments that give the electorate power to accept or reject a proposal of the political elite. They are reactive in nature. Citizen initiatives give citizens the power to propose legislation or a constitutional change and thus constitute an agenda-setting device for launching a public debate on a particular issue. They are proactive in nature. Initiatives are, therefore, a stronger form of direct democracy than referendums.

Citizen initiatives are found mainly in Switzerland (Kriesi 2005: 20-1), and in some states and local jurisdictions of the USA (where they are sometimes called ‘ballot measures’ or ‘propositions’), most famously in California in 1978 where Proposition 13 altered the state constitution to permit the capping of property taxes. Initiatives are increasingly used in Italy (see also Geissel in this volume).

It would seem that the initiative is a perfect vehicle for direct democracy, yet they are often hedged about by a variety of restrictions that limit their impact. The higher the level in the political system, the less likely it is, in general, to make provisions for recalls. In the USA, initiative provisions are most common at the city level (61 per cent), rather less common at the state level (48 per cent), and not allowed at all in the higher reaches of the federal government. Where they are allowed, they often require conditions that can be difficult to meet without an efficient, effective and well-funded political organization. They often require the collection of a large number of signatures of registered electors within a specified time period and within a specified geographical area, and it is not uncommon for them to fail this first hurdle. Some local and state authorities in the USA place limits on the number of initiatives that may be considered in any one election.

In California, a state where initiatives are used more frequently than any other in the USA except Oregon, 1,187 initiatives were launched between 1912 and 2002. Of these, 824 (69.4 per cent) failed to qualify for a ballot, and of the remaining that did qualify, 99 were approved by the voters. In other words, of the original 1,187 initiatives that were launched, 8.3 per cent were successful (http://www. sos.ca.gov/elections/init_history.pdf). At around 10 per cent, the success rate of initiatives in Switzerland (LeDuc 2003: 160) is the same as in the USA. In New Zealand, only three citizen initiatives since 1993 have managed to reach the stage of being presented to the House of Representatives: the government rejected one, and no agreement could be reached on another (Morris 2007). In Switzerland, the Federal Assembly and Council can delay the vote on a proposed initiative for up to four years, by which time the issue may raise little interest (Kobach 1994: 106). In some places, initiative outcomes must be referred to supreme or constitutional courts that can reject them, and in Italy there are constitutional checks before a referendum can be held.

Although many initiatives do not succeed in being put to a general ballot, and most of these do not succeed in being passed, they can still have an impact on citizens and governments. In New Zealand, they have achieved their intended purpose in unexpected ways, because legislators have anticipated their effects (Morris 2007). In the USA, initiatives and other forms of direct democracy have been found to encourage a sense of subject efficacy on the part of citizens and a belief that government is more responsive (Bowler and Donovan 2002). In Switzerland, direct democracy fosters engagement, participation and an interest in politics (Baglioni 2007) and in both Switzerland and the USA, the evidence suggests a wide range of political benefits, including political efficacy, interest and discussion, government responsiveness, greater legitimacy and integration (Lupia and Matsusaka 2004; Kriesi 2005: 12-14; Moeckli 2007: 121-2). In short, initiatives may have a bigger impact than is suggested by the low number of initiatives that actually go to a ballot and are then passed by popular vote (see also Kriesi in this volume).

Initiatives also have their dangers. While the political power and success of wealthy economic interests is often overestimated where popular initiatives are concerned (Gerber 1999; Broder 2000; Bowler and Donovan 2002; Kriesi in this volume) some interest groups have been able to exploit initiatives for commercial reasons (Cronin 1989). The tobacco industry in the USA has promoted initiative action against itself because the outcome would have been less damaging than judicial proceedings. Supermarket and shopping mall owners have tried to use them to prevent competition. Some initiatives have used commercial organizations to collect signatures for their petition, which gives a great advantage to wealthy interests. Bill Sizemore (‘Opposition Bill’) has made extensive use of initiatives in Oregon to try to limit property taxes and block public expenditure programmes, although without much success. In California, it is not unusual to have up to twenty items on the same ballot, which makes it difficult for electors to make decisions and increases the chances of random or manipulated results (Magleby 1984). It is more usual in Switzerland to have two or three items on the same ballot.

The record of initiatives, therefore, is mixed. Many are hedged about by restrictions that limit their direct democratic impact, but in spite of this they can have both good and bad consequences from the point of view of direct democracy (see also Geissel in this volume).

 
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