The power of direct democracy in California
Initiative, referendum, and recall are the power of direct democracy and such process enables citizens to have the opportunity to repeal laws, and express their opinion about the legislature, while citizens in California are losing the effectiveness of initiative process and lead to the question about democracy backsliding in the United States.
Ratepayers in the city of Dunsmuir took initiative process to collect enough signature on a petition to qualify a referendum to approve or reject a water rate increase. However, the city government refused to place the referendum on the ballot in the first place, arguing that Proposition 218 emphasized the voter’s right to repeal or reduce fees using the initiative power, somehow implied an exclusion of the referendum power as a means of affecting fees. The lower court rejected these arguments and ruled in favor of taxpayers, ordering the city to call an election on the ratepayers’ referendum and the case is now before California’s highest court.
Almond and Verba provide the cultural definition of democracy, “citizens believe they can influence politics and have responsibility to participate, but actually participate at low levels; maintain potential to become actively engaged”. The idea of direct democracy process is designed for citizens who also as taxpayers, to protect their rights on political participation and prevent domination of legislature by the politicians. However, the case in the city of Dunsmuir shows that such direct democracy is rejected by the city government. The city refused to let the public to have opportunity to work together with the government together about the water rate case through direct democratic process in the first place. The action of putting the referendum off the agenda is a typical democratic erosion because in this case government blocked the way for citizens to participate in the water rates issue just by saying it is “affecting fees”.
Obviously, the trust between government and citizens was definitively broken and government side held the hegemony of political participation. In that sense, the effectiveness of direct democracy become a question whether it is really works for citizens to keep their political participation, or it is just a strategy for government to have space for discontent. Ozan in his article mentions the strategy of “space for discontent”: “although civil society organizations can provide some space for the expression of discontent against the incumbent, their functioning may be limited through registration and reporting regulations”. The case of water rate is possibly an evidence for the local government to have place the power of direct democracy as space for discontent, if the result turns out that referendum is rejected. More broadly, such initiative process become an illusion of democracy and leaves a question mark on the US democracy that how many other democracy processes are really working as they supposed to be to keep the political participation equally to the citizen.
It is important for citizens in California to act and defend their political participation rights and this case should have call attentions to the public and let them aware of their rights to participate in political process.