The referendum road

IT IS evening on the edge of Portland. The rain has stopped; the air is fresh; commuters roar down highways to homes in the surrounding greenery, stopping down slip roads to shop for groceries on their way. If you stand in one of these shopping enclaves, watching the cars grunt to a halt in the vast parking lot, you can drink your fill of suburban American stereotypes: the fit and the fat, the polished loafers and the canvas trainers, the clean-shaven and the unkempt. And because this is Oregon, which has put more issues than any other state to the test of a referendum, you can stand outside a supermarket and wrestle with a question at the heart of the politics of the future America.

That question is whether direct democracy is good or not. At the turn of the century, Oregon and several other western states adopted the ballot initiative: any citizen may draft a petition, and if this attracts a set number of signatures it is put before the voters in a referendum. The device has since spread across the country: some 250 referendums are held over the course of each two-year election cycle. The idea is to shift power away from professional politicians, who may be corrupted by lobbies or blinded by elitism, to ordinary citizens.