We as citizens of the United States 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. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. 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, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. 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.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. 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.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

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…


Sunday, November 9, 2008

PHILIPPINES: Looking to U.S. Direct Democracy as Example

This interesting piece from the Philippines looks to the direct democracy of initiative & referendum at the state level in the United States as an example for the Philippines to follow. - Editor

Direct Democracy

Pinoy Kasi

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:06:00 11/05/2008


The media frenzy around the US elections has mainly focused on the presidential race, and for good reason, considering the role American presidents play in charting the world’s future. This election is also particularly significant because we just might see the first African-American president.

But I’ve followed the elections also because they show how democracies work. Beneath the glitter and glamour, presidential elections allow substantive discussions of issues that matter to Americans, and to the world.

Few people are aware of another important part of American elections, that of referendums which allow citizens in some states to make some very vital decisions. In the Philippines, we also have this system of citizens’ initiatives but it hasn’t worked out, so maybe we should look more closely at what goes on in the US.

Burning issues

The issues taken up in these referendums reflect the burning issues of the day for Americans. This year, the most hotly debated propositions to be voted on revolve around abortion and same-sex marriage but there are initiatives around taxes, education, animal welfare and energy. California, for example, has two initiatives around alternative energy, including one that requires utilities companies to generate 20 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2010, 40 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2025.

The propositions also reflect how liberal or conservative a particular state might be. For example, 26 states have passed DOMASes or “Defense of Marriage Amendments,” which define marriage as a union of a man and a woman. These amendments are intended to block same-sex marriage, which is currently allowed in three states: California, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In this year’s elections, three states—Arizona, California and Florida—will be voting on a DOMAS (note that California already allows same-sex marriage so their new initiative is intended to overthrow that law).

Abortion has been legal in the US since 1973 but individual states have been looking for ways to impose restrictions. This year, there are three states with abortion-related initiatives. Colorado has a “Defense of the Person Initiative” which would bestow personhood status from the moment of fertilization, giving the fetus “equal rights of life, liberty and property.” If passed, this act would make abortion a crime equivalent to murder and homicide. South Dakota will vote on a constitutional amendment that will ban all abortions except for rape, incest or to protect women’s health. California has a proposition that will require parents of a minor to be notified, with a 48-hour waiting period, after that notification, before the minor can have her abortion.

It’s a powerful system of direct democracy—direct in the sense that citizens themselves make very important decisions, rather than leaving it to elected officials and legislators. At present, 18 states allow citizens to exercise direct democracy to amend a state constitutions, 22 allow citizens to initiate new laws or statutes and in 25 states, citizens can even overthrow or veto a state statute that has already been passed.

The process usually begins with citizens themselves gathering signatures for a petition to put an issue to a vote. The rules vary from one state to another, requiring a certain number for the petition to finally make it to the ballot. For example, California, for a proposition to revise a law, the number of signatures required to put it to a vote is equivalent to 5 percent of the total votes cast in the last election for the governor. To amend the constitution, the requirement is 8 percent.

Not all these initiatives begin with citizens. Some states have a system where the legislators themselves refer an issue to the public for approval.

It’s not easy to get these propositions to the point of a referendum. Gathering petitions is tedious work, and can be challenged by other citizens’ groups. Law suits have been filed against some of these propositions, effectively stopping them from being voted on.

If the propositions are eligible for a vote, the office of the secretary of the state has to put together materials to help citizens make an informed decision. Information materials (in print, and lately, even in audio for those who are visually impaired) are disseminated, explaining the pros and cons involved. This includes a discussion of the issue itself, but can go on to an extended examination of other implications, for example, the cost of enforcing the new law or lost income in terms of taxes. The materials also list people, groups, even newspapers that have endorsed or opposed the initiative. The main sponsors of the initiative are also put under scrutiny for possible vested interests.

Animal rights

There are many other initiatives that are going to be voted on in this election. As an educator, I was intrigued by Oregon’s Measure 60 where teachers’ classroom performance would determine pay raises.

Massachusetts has a Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative, which would decriminalize small amounts (less than one ounce) of marijuana. Proponents say this would save $130 million a year in court and imprisonment costs, but those opposed, organized as a Coalition for Safe Streets, say such decriminalization would send a wrong message to young people.

Animal rights have become a big issue in the US and are reflected this year by three initiatives. California has Proposition 2, which requires that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.” Massachusetts has an initiative that would ban the racing of dogs, specifically greyhounds.

Then there’s Alaska’s Wolf and Bear Protection Act, which went up for a vote a few weeks ago, during the primary elections, and was defeated. This was a referral, sent by state legislators to the public, which would have prohibited “shooting of free-ranging wolf, wolverine or grizzly bear on the same day a person has been airborne.” The law was proposed because hunters have been using aircraft to spot the animals before going after them.

The Philippines has Republic Act 6735, which allows these citizens’ initiatives, but we’ve seen it used repeatedly, from Con-con to Con-ass, by politicians looking for ways to amend the Constitution so they can stay in power. The Action for Economic Reform website has a good, brief critique of the law as “defective legislation,” making the propositions “easy to initiate, difficult to pass.” The problem is informed choice: being able to get enough information and education materials out to voters, rather than letting them be manipulated by politicians.

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