NYC Needs More Direct Democracy

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Photo by: Luigi Novi

It’s widely acknowledged that our systems of representative government are in crisis, and that serious consideration needs to be given to structural reform if we’re to meet the critical challenges of our time and assure a livable future.

Easy opportunities for such reform are limited, but New York City voters now have an exciting chance to create a modern day citizen lawmaking process here, by placing amendments to the city’s charter on the ballot that, if approved by the electorate, would do just that.

The proposed amendments allow citizens to propose and pass local laws directly, and utilize an online citizens’ forum to make that process accessible, collaborative, and informed.

One common question people typically have before joining the voter petition is whether we’re opening ourselves to some of the downsides of California’s ballot propositions. A comprehensive answer to this multifaceted question would take more than an op-ed, but in brief: no, we are not.

Perhaps the most trumpeted downside of California’s system is the various ways voters have affected the state’s budget. (In fact, thanks in part to a progressive taxation scheme enacted by voters, it’s projected to run a surplus this year.) The amendments being advanced here in New York do not threaten fiscal responsibility, as all citizen proposals would have to include a financial plan to cover any foreseen budget impact, and could at any time be amended as needed by the City Council.

Others are justifiably wary of how direct democracy relates to minority rights, citing California’s 2008 anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, among others. It’s likely that nothing has sped America’s astonishingly rapid evolution on gay rights as much as the dialogue caused by such questions appearing on ballots. In fact, having a mechanism whereby groups traditionally neglected by power holders can require public consideration of a grievance can be and has historically been a boon to political inclusion, consensus, and fairness in the long term. In any case, if the celebration of tolerance and demographic diversity so fundamental to New York City’s culture is not sufficient assurance, our city’s local process could never be used to change the state or federal constitutions or laws, where most legal protections are enshrined.

Some of the alleged flaws of California’s process have to do with problems of scale and access, and the resulting costs of participation. These are largely eliminated in our case by the city’s geographic compactness and the ease of partaking in all aspects of citizen lawmaking, from drafting, to deliberation, to ballot qualification, brought about by the carefully defined online citizens’ forum.

People are also concerned with the influence of money. Political scientist Elizabeth Gerber’s comprehensive research on the subject has shown that corporate cash in ballot initiative campaigns is actually only effective at getting people to vote against a proposal, so there is much less concern of such interests getting their way through a public vote than there is of them getting it, as they all too often do, by working the levers of representative government. But by creating a potent public space with the citizens’ forum that’s transparent and open to all, the influence of money and corporate media will be even further mitigated here.

The liability direct democracy poses to entrenched corporate and political interests has played a role in the lopsided coverage it has gotten to date. But dismissing it out of hand would be as foolish as completely scrapping our current representative system for its flaws. The people of California, like those of all the 24 states with initiative rights, free to fix their processes and governments as they see fit, would never give up the huge benefits of such a tool.

Both direct and representative democracy will be important to our future citizenship. The question on the table now, is whether New Yorkers can recognize and demonstrate their capacity for something more responsible and innovative than the purely representative system we currently cede all power to. Let’s place a common sense improvement on the ballot so that all New Yorkers’ solutions to the problems we face together can get a fair hearing.

I encourage readers to find out more and join in bringing about real change at www.democracynyc.org