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#3 Keeping a tight grip: the Swiss-Oregonian lock

Now, let's turn our attention to what happens between elections. In particular, what might be done to keep politicians in check after we have elected them? By now, the motivation for this must be clear. From prime ministers who use false pretexts to lead a nation into war, to governments that unflinchingly implement radical and nearly-irreversible public sector “reforms” in the face of widespread public opposition, all too often we find ourselves at the mercy of those we have elected.

These kinds of actions by our elected officials raise important questions about the democratic legitimacy of much of what is done in our name. They also make it evident that we need some sort of emergency mechanism that would allow us to stop the political class from adopting measures that citizens strongly oppose. Without the political equivalent of a bright-red “STOP” button like the ones in elevators, it will remain easy for politicians to continue abusing the power we have entrusted them with.

We can find the basic building block for such a political “panic button” in Switzerland: the citizen-initiated referendum. By gathering a sufficient number of signatures, citizens who strongly oppose a government measure are able to subject it to a popular vote. [24] Though the underlying idea is a simple one, a few considerations are in order.

First, campaigning to hold a referendum and collecting the required number of signatures is often a very costly enterprise. That means that, unless adequate measures are taken, special interest groups with access to large amounts of money will have a substantial advantage in using these referendums to advance their political agendas. Therefore, we need to ensure that such campaigns are financed exclusively through grassroots support (i.e., small individual contributions). Fortunately, and because the Internet has made raising the public's awareness of an issue and collecting signatures so much easier, imposing strict financing rules may very well level the playing field without placing an undue burden on the ability to campaign.

Second, the same logic implies that—once enough signatures have been collected and it has been determined that a referendum will indeed take place—both sides should be subject to the restrictions on funding sources we discussed earlier. In particular, both sides should receive an equal amount of public funding.

Third, it is important that the results of such a referendum be binding. Given the generally low levels of electoral turnout, referendums can easily fail to meet the 50% turnout threshold that many countries require for the results to be binding. All too often, politicians can already rest assured that their opponents in civil society will fail to meet the necessary criteria for a referendum to be held in the first place. What these turnout requirements do is ensure that citizens will then face yet another uphill battle not only to gain popular approval, but also to secure the required turnout for the referendum to have its intended effect.

Unless there is some indication of electoral foul play, these turnout requirements should be waived, and referendum results should be binding. In established democracies, where there are no threats or barriers to electoral participation, it is difficult to justify ignoring the outcome of a referendum simply because a majority of the population opted to stay home. Unlike what happens in general elections (where abstention is better understood as a refusal to support any of the electable candidates than as an expression of true political apathy), not voting in a referendum necessarily implies that a voter either does not particularly care about the matter at hand or judges herself unable to vote in a meaningful way. Neither of those seems a valid reason to ignore the preferences of those who opted to vote.

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Yet referendums suffer from the well-known problems we discussed earlier. In particular, voters typically come to the voting booth without adequate information and having done little to no serious reflection on the choice(s) facing them. The results can be seen in referendum-happy California, where a series of decisions made over the years in referendums have contributed to making that American state close to ungovernable. Without modifications, referendums provide a way for the popular voice to make itself heard over that of the political class; unfortunately, we cannot assume that the citizens will speak in a reasoned, informed way. This warrants two considerations.

First, recall a remedy for this problem that we looked at earlier: these binding referendums on the politicians' decisions should be modeled after Oregon's Citizen Initiative Review. After the required signatures have been collected, a randomly appointed citizen panel would convene to deliberate, with the input of experts and advocates, on the topic at hand. This citizen panel would then produce a statement that would serve as a reliable, trustworthy source of information for the electorate. Media coverage would ensure that voters would have easy access to the panel's views and conclusions before the referendum. [25]

Second, the same general concerns suggest that it might be wise to use referendums strictly as a way for the electorate to pass judgment on the decisions politicians make. Enabling groups of citizens to actively propose new laws that would come into force if approved in a popular vote seems a dangerous proposal. The case of California warrants this concern, as does the recent use of popular initiatives in Switzerland to advance openly xenophobic agendas. Adding an Oregon-style citizen deliberation layer to the process should help us mitigate the risk of unreasoned, emotional popular decisions at the ballot box. However, it makes sense to err on the side of caution and stick to the initially stated goal of merely curbing the power of politicians. As we have seen, the best tool for achieving this is a citizen-initiated referendum that gives citizens a chance to revoke decisions made by politicians—and that is exclusively what I am advocating in this chapter.

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It could also be worthwhile to endow these referendums with sharper political teeth. While the actions of some politicians might simply be misguided, there is other, far more egregious behavior to be concerned about. For example, some politicians may actively try to deceive the public so that they can better serve private interests. Or they might act in a way that clearly goes against the platform or major promises on which they were elected.

Such extreme circumstances warrant the voters' ability not merely to reverse the decisions made by politicians, but also to effectively punish them for their actions. We can find a model for how to do this in recall elections, which already exist in a number of US states and Swiss cantons (in addition to several other parts of the world). As their name suggests, these are elections in which the public decides whether an elected politician should be ousted from office.

One way to make referendums more effective tools of citizen control would be to give them a similar “recall option.” For example, when participating in a referendum, citizens could face three different choices:

To help voters reach a more reasoned view on whether a recall might be warranted, the citizen panel would also deliberate on this matter.

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Among the measures advocated in this book, promoting a more effective mechanism for citizens to check the actions of the political class may be the most appealing to the general population. By having a citizen panel reflect and share its views on the matter up for referendum—as is done in Oregon's Citizen Initiative Review process—this reform can be an important step towards acquainting the public with the virtues of citizen deliberation. Thus, by exploiting the populist appeal of, quite literally, “kicking a politician out of office,” we will not just bring greater accountability into our political system—we will also be planting the seeds for a more deliberative future.


24. ^ A referendum of this kind is often called an “abrogative” referendum. As in the previous chapters, the details matter: the required number of signatures needs to simultaneously balance the conflicting needs of (i) being high enough as not to make everyday governance impossible and (ii) being low enough so that the referendum acts as an effective check on politicians.

25. ^ Ensuring that all of the media would play a constructive role in this process could be done by legally mandating the publication/ broadcasting of the panel's recommendations and also by protecting the panel's right of reply. Though a far cry from addressing the broader issue of what is the proper role of the media in a democratic society, this should at least help mitigate the risk that these measures would end up further empowering those groups that already enjoy a privileged relationship with mainstream media outlets.

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