By ROSS DAY
As the Keizertimes reported a couple of weeks ago, I was invited by the Swiss government to observe elections in Switzerland on June 13, 2010. The tour centered around Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, the first such system of its kind in the world. In fact, Oregon’s (which happens to be the first state in the union to have a direct democracy system) unique system of erect democracy was actually “poached” from Switzerland.
The tour was eye-opening for me for a number of reasons. First, Switzerland’s system is demonstrably different from Oregon’s system. In particular, because Switzerland’s judicial system is a civil law system, and not a common law system like we have in the United States, when an initiative measure passes in Switzerland, there are no courts available to make sure the initiative petition is actually implemented.
Of course, in Oregon, the same argument can be said of our court system, only in reverse. Even though we have a common law system, the courts often times go out of their way to make sure initiative measures are never implemented.
But for me the most encouraging aspect of the trip was the overall attitude demonstrated by the citizens of Switzerland, and the politicians of Switzerland, towards their system of direct democracy.
In Switzerland, there are often times as many as four elections a year on initiative measures at the local, state and federal level. There can be as many as 10 measures at a time on a ballot (10 measures between the federal, state, and local level). Which means Swiss citizens may be voting on as many as 40 federal, state, and local measures in a year!
In Oregon, politicians claim they worry about “ballot fatigue.” What they mean by “ballot fatigue” is that the politicians are afraid Oregonians will become tired of voting on too many measures on the ballot. In Switzerland, both the politicians and the citizens embrace this concept. As Andi Gross, a member of the Swiss Federal Parliament told us, “The more elections you have the better. After all, it is elections that make democracy go.”
In addition, politicians and the citizenry in Switzerland hold their system of direct democracy in much higher regard than it is held here in Oregon. In Oregon, special interests aligned against the initiative process (special interests who have paid considerable sums of money to get certain politicians elected into office) have waged a war against Oregon’s system of direct democracy. The war has been raging for nearly a decade, and the ultimate goal by the special interests is to sour the Oregon electorate on Oregon’s direct democracy system.
As a result, Oregonians are generally skeptical of Oregon’s initiative and referendum process. Not the case in Switzerland. Even though the direct democratic process in Switzerland is most often used by well-heeled special interests, the people of Switzerland still recognize that direct democracy is an essential part of their right to govern, and to be governed.
Accordingly, the Swiss people would never allow their system of direct democracy to be attacked as it has been attacked here in Oregon. Furthermore, the media in Switzerland would not have been at as complicit as the media in Oregon has been with regards to the attack on the initiative process. In fact, the Swiss media jealously guards Switzerland’s direct democratic process as something that sets Switzerland apart from the rest of Europe.
Of course, in the United States, the initiative and referendum process is generally regarded as the “Oregon system.” Just like the Swiss system, the Oregon system should be equally guarded, jealously protected, and free from unwarranted attacks by special interests who have their best interests at heart, not the best interests of Oregonians.
There are many things I learned on my trip to Switzerland. For me, the most important thing that I learned was that there is hope that Oregon’s initiative and referendum system can be saved after years of attacks from certain special interests. My hope is that someday the people of Oregon will again come to appreciate, respect, and embrace “the Oregon System.”
Ross Day lives in Keizer. He is executive director and general counsel for Common Sense for Oregon.