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“Direct democracy is a safety valve”

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Dane Waters

“Direct democracy is a safety valve”


In Country in focus, Democracy International takes a closer look at advances in modern direct democracy and citizen participation worldwide. This month, the spotlight is on the United States.

In 1998, frustrated by the lack of information on direct democratic instruments, Dane Waters founded the Initiative and Referendum Institute. Today the institute, meanwhile hosted by the University of Southern California, provides indispensable services for anyone working on or using initiative and referendum processes in the US.

Dane, you founded the Initiative and Referendum Institute almost 20 years ago. What was your vision for the Institute when you started out?

I was born in Alabama where we don’t have the initiative and referendum process. So, I had actually never heard of the process, until I went to work for US Term Limits, an organisation that was pushing to impose term limits on officials and members of congress. They used the initiative process to get their issues through and so it was interesting to learn that such a process existed.

One thing I found while working there, was that there was no central location to find out how to put issues on the ballot. And so, when I left US Term Limits to start the Initiative and Referendum Institute the primary focus was to be a clearing house for information for people who wanted to use the process.

We weren’t ideological in any way, we just wanted to show that it’s an important process, and teach people how to use it. I also started collecting academic research about the process and tried to bring it to a central home for all the people who wanted to study direct democracy. So that was the impetus.

The US has a very strong history of direct democracy, do you see a difference in political participation and culture between states that have the option and ones that don’t?

There are a lot of differences. Academically if you look at the roughly 24 states that have the initiative process in this country, you find that, for the most part, they have been more responsive to the will of the people. Because the people have the initiative process to put issues before lawmakers, or if lawmakers have been unwilling to address certain issues, they have that out. I would argue there is greater democracy in states that have the initiative process than in states that don’t.

But if you look at it compared to other countries, we are one of those countries that have never held a national vote on a specific policy issue. I think that has been a problem for us, because these processes are a kind of safety valve. When very complicated and emotional issues need to be addressed and lawmakers aren’t addressing them, people have that safety valve. At the national level, we don’t have that.

You mentioned that states in the US that have an initiative and referendum process have greater democracy in general. Do you also see an effect of having these instruments on representative democracy and elected officials in those states?

What you typically see is that lawmakers understand that citizens plan to use the initiative process to do something, and that lawmakers will deal with it beforehand in a way that they see suited. It is an impetus to push lawmakers to act, so that they can retain more control. I would argue that states with an initiative process are more representative, because lawmakers know it can be used to reign in their power and authority and they’ll do what they can to keep the people from doing that.

In the United States, direct democracy is not a replacement for representative democracy, it’s a check on it. I think that’s critical: most people in this country are not pushing to do away with representative government. They like the initiative process because it’s a tangible check and balance that they have on lawmakers.

As you said, it is also important to have these checks & balances on the national level, is there any chance of an initiative process being created at the federal level in the US?

I think that what we’re seeing in this country today, in the 24 states that have the initiative process, lawmakers have become very hostile towards it and are making it more difficult for people to use. I think that’s in direct correlation with the polarisation of politics in this country.

There’s no longer that collaboration between the two parties to do what’s in the best interest of the people. Trying to build a consensus on issues is almost impossible. When Republicans control the state legislature, Democrats turn to the initiative process because they can’t get anything done with the state legislature, and vice versa.

Now that Republicans control a very high majority of state legislatures, they’re working very hard to make the initiative process almost impossible to use: They don’t want the Democrats to use the initiative process to break up republican control. So at state level, unfortunately, we’re having to work extra hard to protect the process.

To introduce the initiative process at the national level, congress would have to propose an amendment to the constitution and in our history, we have only had 22 of those. I do think the people overwhelmingly want it at the national level, so I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s very unlikely at this point in time.

That’s interesting, because since the election of Donald Trump a year ago, you often hear that there is a lot of popular indignation and that grassroots initiatives are thriving, but at the same time it’s being made harder. Is there a tendency to use these instruments more since the 2016 election?

At the local level, people are trying to organise more initiatives, because even if only 24 states have the initiative process, at local level it exists almost everywhere. Unfortunately, state lawmakers who are seeing this increased use, are creating ‘pre-emption’ laws. And you can’t do at local level, what’s not allowed at state level.

A lot of people, for reasons that I just can’t understand, up until now have been silent about Trump because they’re afraid of that majority that supports him. Many people perceive that this majority, those 32% of people, are not very nice people and they don’t want to do anything to rile up that “base”.  But I do think that more and more people are starting to vocalise their unhappiness with Trump.

Over the next 3 years, more people are going to turn to direct democracy. You’re already seeing this in California, where more initiatives have been filed this election cycle, than you’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years. So that frustration among the people about the president’s polarisation is turning people to direct democracy.

In Europe, we’ve seen a host of elections where extreme right parties get bigger control, or even have near election wins. This has been used as an argument against direct democracy, opponents claim that people are too extreme or don’t support realistic policy. From the US experience, do you see any legitimacy to this fear?

We need checks and balances on everything. In the US, we have our three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. And I think that that is critical. I’m sure there are some states where if they could put an initiative on the ballot to ban all Muslims, they would do that. But the judiciary and our federal constitution would forbid that from happening: that’s what it means to have checks and balances! That’s critical, that and the protection of human rights.

I’m a firm believer that people should have the right to do whatever they want, but only in so far that they don’t violate the individual liberties and freedoms of others, and as described in that country’s federal constitution.

That brings us back to Donald Trump, who as president seems to have been an unprecedented challenge to the US constitution. Does he value the constitution less than previous presidents?

I don’t think he doesn’t care about the constitution, I think he doesn’t understand it. He does things that most people feel violates the constitution, but he doesn’t know any better. He represents the worst qualities a leader could have: he has no empathy, no common sense, no book sense and he’s a narcissist to the extreme, to the extent where he just does things that are in his best interest. If he were in the private sector, that would be tolerable, but as president of the US, those are the worst imaginable qualities.

But we as a country, we will survive three more years with Donald Trump, and the reality is that he’s a perfect example of how checks and balances work. He scares a lot of us, but we are fortunate enough to live in a country where we have a control. We will survive, it will be painful, but we will survive.


Dane Waters recently launched the Elephant Project, an initiative that hopes to ensure the protection of elephants through new and innovative solutions.

Interview by Caroline Vernaillen.

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