Direct Democracy in America

The phrase “laboratories of democracy,” as applied to the states, seems most often to mean something more like “democratic laboratories” – democratic testing grounds for various approaches to social problems. What sort of welfare reform will be most effective? Let Wisconsin try out Plan A, while Michigan experiments with Plan B. What combination of tort liability rules will achieve desired levels of compensation and deterrence? Let the states experiment with strict liability, comparative negligence, or various nofault schemes. It is also true, however, that the states are literally laboratories of democracy – arenas in which democratic institutions are themselves experimented with and tested. One such experiment, an institution now being tested, is the plebiscite. Since South Dakota adopted the initiative a century ago, American states have been testing the efficacy of direct democracy. Indeed, if the current array of states utilizing the initiative had been designed as an experiment to test that method of governance, one could hardly ask for a better distribution. Approximately one-half do and onehalf do not allow for the initiative. Those that do are spread out from Maine to California, albeit with a somewhat greater concentration of initiative states in the West, and include both small and large states. Collectively, the states now have a great deal of experience with lawmaking sans legislatures. Those of us hoping to learn from this experience need several distinct sorts of information. First of all, we need information about the initiative process itself. Who has used it? To what ends? How does it work? What procedural difficulties have arisen? What solutions to those difficulties have been attempted or suggested? Providing this sort of information is the aim of Philip L. Dubois and Floyd Feeney3 in Lawmaking by Initiative: Issues, Options and Comparisons. Dubois and Feeney survey the initiative process and outline the key procedural problems which have arisen in the practice of lawmaking by initiative. While they focus on the experience of California, Dubois and Feeney have collected data regarding direct lawmaking across the country and abroad. They accurately and cogently describe many of the procedural issues generated by the initiative: signature requirements, ballot complexity, voter understanding, campaign finance, and judicial review. Dubois and Feeney’s valuable contribution is among the handful of books any student of direct democracy should have on his or her shelf.