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Participatory Democracy USA Style

A Participatory Democracy 
for American voters

Many overseas audiences are aware that the entire 435-seat United States House of Representatives and a third of the 100 Senate positions are contested in all US congressional elections every two years. Fewer, however, realize that each of the 50 states has its own state legislature, a total of more than 6,000 positions, most of which are up for election on November every couple of years. Add to that 11 elections for state governor (most of the 50 gubernatorial positions come up during the "off-year" elections) and the total number of elective offices starts to look pretty large.

These positions, numerous as they are, barely scratch the surface of the number of posts on state and local ballots. It may be no surprise that mayors in thousands of cities in the United States must run for election, from the mayor of New York City, with a population greater than that of many countries, to the mayor of Greenhorn, Oregon, with a population of three.

This is still only the tip of the iceberg.  Americans elect state treasurers, state labor commissioners, city commissioners, county commissioners, school board members and the boards of fire departments. They elect county auditors, the boards of cooperative regional governments and sheriffs. They elect circuit court judges, appeals court judges, state supreme court justices and the precinct committee members for the political parties. In many states, the head of the state's school system is elected. In the state of Louisiana, the officials in charge of assessing property tax values are elected. California alone has thousands of special governmental districts, many of which have elective positions. The fact is, according to Washington political consultant Earl Bender, that the United States has more than 176,000 elective offices spread throughout its tens of thousands of governmental entities.

In most countries, the great majority of the posts mentioned above either does not exist or are filled by appointment. Why have Americans chosen to elect so many of their officials?

This richness of elective offices goes back to the foundation of the U.S. federalist system. From the beginning, Americans have had a deep aversion to centralized political power. To guard against it, the new United States placed a great deal of authority in its state governments, each of which has the privilege of electing its own officials. The country's founders also realized that the sheer vastness of the country called for the devolution of power to state and local institutions. 

According to Professor Rodger Randall of the University of Oklahoma, who is also a former president of the Oklahoma State Senate and a former mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, "The United States federal system puts real decision making power in the state and local levels of government -- like a cascade of power. We not only elect these posts, but these people are going to have real authority, without a check by the federal government, other than the basic guarantees of freedom contained in the constitution."

State legislators, mayors, county commissioners and other local officials have the ability to make laws and regulations, levy taxes for local purposes and administer the local government institutions that supply such basic needs as water, roads, police and fire protection.

"This federalism means that most of the things that affect our daily lives are decided at the local level. By electing these officials, we gain strong and immediate accountability from them. If I have a pothole in the road in front of my house, I can call someone on the phone that I elected," Randall said. 

The United States is a participatory democracy. Counting all of the candidates for office, their campaign staff and the countless volunteers, literally millions of Americans get involved in each campaign season.  In addition, Americans are empowered to promote citizens' initiatives that must be resolved via referendum.  In fact, the United States has more local and state referendums than any other country in the world.  In many states and localities, these citizens' initiatives include petitions for recall election allowing citizens to vote on whether to remove officeholders before their regular terms expire.

The use of ballot initiatives, referendums, and recall elections is growing rapidly. The precise mechanisms vary from state to state, but in general terms, initiatives allow voters to bypass their state legislatures by collecting enough signatures on petitions to place proposed statutes and, in some states, constitutional amendments directly on the ballot. Referendums require that certain categories of legislation, for example, those intended to raise money by issuing bonds, be put on the ballot for public approval; voters can also use referendums to rescind laws already passed by state legislatures.

Initiatives, now allowed by 24 states, have been especially popular in the West, having been used more than 300 times in Oregon, more than 250 times in California, and almost 200 times in Colorado. All sorts of issues have appeared on the ballot in the various states, including regulation of professions and businesses, anti-smoking legislation, vehicle insurance rates, abortion rights, legalized gambling and the medical use of marijuana, the use of nuclear power, and gun control.

The responsibility that can make the most lasting difference, however, is getting involved in the political process. "Proponents of participatory democracy argue that increased citizen participation in community and workplace decision-making is important if people are to recognize their roles and responsibilities as citizens within the larger community," says Craig Rimmerman, professor of political science, in his book The New Citizenship: Unconventional Politics, Activism, and Service. "Community meetings, for example, afford citizens knowledge regarding other citizens' needs. In a true participatory setting, citizens do not merely act as autonomous individuals pursuing their own interests, but instead, through a process of decision, debate, and compromise, they ultimately link their concerns with the needs of the community."