Stateside and abroad: Direct democracy is global and spreading, though the flavour varies

IN ALL 50 STATES citizens may occasionally have a referendum put before them by their state legislature. But only 24 states are considered to have statewide direct democracy, defined as a process in which citizens themselves place initiatives or referendums on ballots. The differences are huge. Of the more than 2,000 statewide initiatives in American history, the overwhelming majority have taken place in just a handful of states, led by Oregon, California and Colorado. In those states, direct democracy is in effect a fourth branch of government. Elsewhere it plays a negligible or minor role. Legally and culturally, says Dane Waters, an expert, “California is a different animal altogether.”

Three states allow initiatives only to amend the state constitution, and one of these, Illinois, makes this so difficult that only one binding initiative has ever qualified. Another six allow initiatives only to enact statutes. Some allow unlimited time to gather signatures, others a few months. (California, with 150 days, gives circulators very little time.) States such as North Dakota, Montana and Ohio require few signatures to qualify an initiative; others, such as Wyoming, ask for lots.

Such nuances affect the way the process is used, even leaving aside the political culture. In California, a huge market with expensive media and with a short period to collect many signatures, money is crucial. In a small, homogeneous state that makes the process easy (Montana, say), signature-gathering might be done by old-fashioned volunteers.

Direct democracy is also on the rise globally, says Bruno Kaufmann, the Swedish-Swiss president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe. Switzerland is still the gold standard. But countries from Uruguay to the Philippines and New Zealand have their own version, and places like Thailand, Brazil and South Korea are adopting or expanding theirs. The European Union has just introduced the first supranational initiative process, with very fancy electronic signature-gathering.

Referendums are often the main instrument. Those countries trying the initiative process, says Mr Kaufmann, usually aspire to the Swiss ideal of a “conversation” between voters and legislators, in which ballot measures are at best “screwdrivers” to tighten or loosen a bit here and there. The “antagonistic” Californian model, where initiatives are “hammers” to smash things, is one to avoid, he says.