Former lawmaker takes on initiative process


Fixing California’s ballot initiative process, fraught with obvious shortcomings, according to its detractors, cannot be done until the National Initiative for Democracy is passed by more than 66 million voters in the country, Mike Gravel said yesterday in San Mateo.

Gravel, who ran for president in 2008, is a former senator from Alaska who has been on a nearly 20-year mission to give lawmaking power to the general public independently of Congress and the president.

He is the author and promoter of the National Initiative for Democracy that consists of a constitutional amendment and federal law that would recognize the legislative power of the people to make laws and “permit the people” to amend the Constitution directly.

Currently, 24 states, including California, have an initiative, referendum and recall process that allows the general public to place them on the ballot.

The United States, however, does not allow for direct democracy through the initiative process.

Why is it needed?

“Because the initiative process in California is corrupted by representative government,” Gravel told a crowd at a League of Women Voters meeting yesterday.

Gravel wants to see direct democracy installed at the federal level for states to follow. And even though the process might be corrupt in California, it is still doing better than other states, Gravel said.

The League of Women Voters is currently updating its stance on the ballot initiative process in California, which it supports. Gravel, 82, and his wife Whitney are members of the local league and now live in Burlingame, closer to family.

The problem is not with the initiative itself, Gravel said, but with the representative government that controls the process.

Congress has studied direct democracy for decades, he said.

“Nothing has changed in 20 years. It has been studied ad nauseum. In Congress, when you don’t want to do something, you study it,” Gravel said.

The problem with California’s current initiative process, Gravel said, is the cost to government for an initiative election is too great; the corrupting influence of money; initiatives are poorly drafted; they are confusing with multiple subjects; there is no limit on the words that describe ballot initiatives in voter guides; the qualifying process is too expensive; the Legislature cannot amend a ballot initiative; the lack of deliberation; and not being able to tell who supports or opposes the ballot initiative.

Gravel said the best way for the public to govern itself is not by “bridging” the gap between representative government but rather by “widening” it.

As a former member of the Senate, Gravel said his decisions related to policy votes were often “selfish.”

“First you think ‘how does this affect me.’ Then you think ‘how does this affect the special interests that give me money.’ Then you think about the party. It is not about what is good for the public,” he said.

It is “human nature,” he said.

The nation’s form of government is meant to keep Americans “civic adolescents,” he said.

The only way to fix California’s initiative process is to “divorce yourselves from representative government,” he said.

He founded The Democracy Foundation in 2001 to educate the public on their “inherent powers within a democracy.”

Gravel ran for president in 2008 as a Democrat not because he wanted to be president, he said, but to advance his National Initiative for Democracy plan.

“I wanted to use the celebrity nature of running for president to promote direct democracy,” he said yesterday. “But in seven debates, there was not one question on the topic.”

Gravel switched to the Libertarian Party after Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination in 2008. He wanted to run for president as a Libertarian but never got on the ballot.

Gravel’s National Initiative for Democracy has the support of consumer activist Ralph Nader and economist Noam Chomsky. He does not have much support for the measure in Congress, however.

“When I talk to legislators about it they don’t even know what I’m talking about,” he said.

Gravel even endorses getting rid of the Senate altogether.

Nebraska’s unicameral form of government works well enough, he said.


For more information on the National Initiative for Democracy visit


Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.