“All political power is inherent in the people”, states the Connecticut Constitution. We share that right with Switzerland, a country no larger than the state of Connecticut. Yet, only Switzerland honors the mandate of the peoples’ sovereign power through constitutionally guaranteed initiative and referendum rights. These initiative and referendum powers are vested in the Swiss citizenry at all three levels of government: Municipal, know as Communes; State, called Cantons; and Federal.
Along with ten other American’s, all guests of the Swiss government, I recently visited Switzerland where we participated in a five day direct democracy tour. We met with officials at every level of the initiative and referendum process: initiative sponsors, petition circulators, funders, election officials, and government officials, culminating with a one and a half hour meeting with Federal Chancellor, Corina Casanova, at the Federal Palace in Bern. This was a fact finding mission, and as the Chairman of Connecticut Citizens for Ballot Initiative, I am pleased to share some of the highlights and findings of our tour.
Connecticut does not have statewide initiative and referendum, but we practice these quite vigorously on a local level through referendum rights enjoyed in our municipal charters. And, Connecticut is no stranger to statewide initiative and referendum efforts. These rights were proposed and debated in the historic 1965 Constitutional Convention. Bills in support of initiative and referendum are filed and rejected bi-annually at our State Capitol. Connecticut is in a minority of nineteen (19) states without any form of direct democracy: initiative, referendum and recall.
In 1874, The Swiss Confederation enacted referendum rights for its citizens. The Swiss people call referendum the “brake” on their government. Their referendum mechanism gives the Swiss citizens the ability to challenge laws passed by their Parliament, in essence the peoples’ veto power. In 1891, the Swiss approved a constitutional amendment that gave their citizens initiative rights. The Swiss people call the initiative process their “gas pedal”. Through initiative, they can compel their government, when inactive or indifferent, to listen to their proposed initiative, and in essence, create their own law.
Some other facts and features of the Swiss model of initiative and referendum follow. Only ten percent of Swiss Initiative & Referendum become law, which shows the restraint and deliberativeness of the Swiss people. Since the French Revolution, of the 1430 national referendums held in the world, one-third have been in Switzerland. The Swiss have four (4) elections per year. The Swiss have 3.8 percent unemployment. A unique feature of the Swiss initiative referendum model is the Counter Proposal, a process that gives the Legislature the right to submit an alternative to an initiative or referendum proposed by the people, after which both questions go to the citizens for a vote, with the winner prevailing.
For example, if Connecticut citizens were to initiate an initiative seeking term limits of eight years (comparable to the President’s national term limit) the legislature could propose a limit of twelve years, with the public making the final decision between the two. The Swiss Counter Proposal has led to a system of concordance, where elected officials respect and are unthreatened by the people and their initiatives, and more importantly the electorate has more confidence in, and accountability over its elected officials. In Switzerland, initiatives often fail, but through the initiative and Counter Proposal process, the Parliament “gets the message”, and frequently enacts more exacting legislation, born from the failed initiative.
Connecticut Citizens for Ballot Initiative, a non-partisan, issue neutral political action committee, is supporting candidates in November’s election, who will give Connecticut citizens a statewide initiative and referendum mechanism, incorporating many elements of the Swiss initiative and referendum model, in particular the Counter Proposal concept.
Connecticut Citizens for Ballot Initiative endorses the Counter Proposal concept because this ensures the legislature an important and continuing role in the peoples’ initiative and referendum process. Today, public alienation and anger is very evident in our political system, notably at the state and federal levels. It’s time for our elected officials to honor our state’s Constitution, and to give sovereign power to the Connecticut citizen through a meaningful and substantive initiative and referendum law.
John Woodcock III will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Wednesday on the north steps of the State Capitol where he will talk about Connecticut Citizens for Ballot Initiative and thank the candidates for office who support it.