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Uses of referendums

Lots of countries require a popular referendum for constitution changes. Of course, lots don't even do that, either.

Iceland is largely a fairly typical parliamentary system, with elected mostly figurehead president and unicameral parliament. But the president does have a power of "veto", which actually means sending a law to referendum; this has happened 7 times, I think. It seems elegant: the president actually has powers and decisions to make other than in constitutional crises, but in a way that increases democracy, rather than simply overriding parliament.

Denmark requires referendums for treaties that change Danish sovereignty, like EU treaties, unless passed by 5/6 of Parliament. Most such treaties had been sent to the people anyway, even with such supermajority, until the Lisbon Treaty; I'd guess the elites were spooked by the failure (in other countries) of the previous EU constitution. 1/3 of the legislature can send a new law to the people, but this has been used all of once.

WP: "Since amendments to the constitution in 2001, the Parliament of Croatia is obligated by constitution to call a referendum if signatures of 10% of registered voters of the Republic of Croatia are collected. The time frame for collecting the signatures is defined by the law on referendums, and it is 15 days.[6]" 10% in 15 days sounds pretty strict; Switzerland with 2x the population needs roughly 1% in 100 days.

Switzerland requires referendums for treaties that join with a multinational organization or a security pact. It also allows 50,000 voters -- 1% of the electorate -- or 8 cantons to send a new law or treaty to (facultative) referendum. I don't have stats on how often this is used, but the Swiss vote 3-4 times a year on multiple referendums or initiatives. That's at the federal level; some localities also require referendums for large expenditures. I'd read elsewhere that large infra projects (that could displace lots of peple or affect many lives) need referendums, I don't know if that's specifically true or just a consequence of the spending referendums.

The Swiss are also the only country with initiatives. 100,000 voters can put a measure on the ballot. The parliament and government (a collegiate executive) get to give their opinions, and Parliament can submit a competing measure, in which case voters vote (a) if there should be a change and (b) if so, which measure should win. I think that actually biases the system toward change, e.g. 45% might vote no change, 35% might vote change to A, 20% might vote change to B, giving 55% voting for change and A winning. Maybe I misunderstand. In contrast California uses something like approval voting, where you could vote for A, B, or both, and A would need both a majority and more votes than B to pass.

Federal initiatives are only constitutional amendemnts, which need a double majority (pass nationwide, ans pass in a majority of cantons); some cantons have legislative initiatives.

Some thoughts on the expected quality of referendums and initiatives. Say they're easy to do, and say also that it's embarrassing or political damaging to have your law rejected by the people. This suggests a legislature would try harder to pass only popular law, which means most referendums would be for close laws or else be started by crazy sore losers who can't accept reality. Likewise with easy initiatives a legislatures might be more pro-active in taking up issues, less they get blindsided with some popular proposal. If done well, this means actual initiatives would be crazy stuff no one wants.

So you might look around and go "look, the legislature is well behaved, the only things coming via direct democracy are crazy stuff, we should just get rid of that as a waste of time." But this would be overlooking that the legislature is well behaved *because* of the direct democratic threat, and the initiatives crazy only insofar as the legislature stayed in line. Kind of like "let's get rid of this big defensive force we never use, no one's attacked us in years" when the existence of the force was why no one had attacked you.

I've been feeling radical and that replacing "president signs laws" with "people approve laws" might be perfectly appropriate. Yes it might mean voting many weeks for fast turnaround but if you can go to church once a week you can go vote once a week. But maybe easy facultative referendums a la the Swiss would be good enough. You'd need an expectation that they would actually be used; having a dusty segment of the constitution that never gets invoked is no good. I've also imagined what might be reasonable expanded categories for obligatory referendums: declarations of war, approving new treaties, additions to the criminal code, changes to the tax code... what's actually left for the pure legislature? Budget details and the civil code.

Huh, 2011 saw 150+ recall elections in the US. Mostly municipal leve. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recall_election#2011_recalls

Taiwan and Uruguay also have referendum procedures, but I don't have details. Italy does too, but as with so much else they mess it up. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_in_Italy

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Damien Sullivan

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