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We like to say that our country is a democracy, but it really isn’t. A democracy is a system in which the citizens themselves control the lawmaking process directly, just as in Ancient Greece. America is a federal republic–because it would be impossible for our 300 million citizens to come together and vote on laws, we elect representatives to make laws on our behalf, at the local, state, and national level.
In one way, however, America truly is a democracy: through ballot initiatives, which propose laws directly to citizens and allow them to vote yes or no, without any politicians playing middle man. This means that ballot initiatives, especially at the local level, give citizens a great amount of control over their government. And they can be filed by any citizen, at any time, to change any law.
But how does a ballot initiative work? A new booklet by Leslie Graves called Local Ballot Initiatives: How citizens change laws with clipboards, conversations, and campaigns explains the process, and then some. The book guides citizens from step to step throughout the process of writing a proposal, gathering signatures, and campaigning for votes, and leaves no stone uncovered or question unanswered. You can download the book for free by clicking here. (You will be asked to sign up for an account on a site called Issuu before you can download the book, but there’s no charge.)
Because ballot initiatives are the citizen’s way of working around government to create change, politicians have unsurprisingly made the process as complicated and difficult as they possibly could! For example, you’ll need to know exactly what your local initiative law is, what branch of the government to file your paperwork with, how to fill out that paperwork, and how to avoid mistakes that will lead to challenges for lawyers. Then you’ll need to collect signatures according to very strict guidelines–all while racing against the clock. It’s a challenging task, but Graves’ booklet is there to help at every turn, explaining how to work through every obstacle you might face.
The core of the booklet is a 14-step guide to getting an initiative on the ballot, the explains in-depth how many signatures are needed, who can collect and submit signatures, and what kinds of signatures and valid and invalid. It teaches activists how to format petitions, train circulators, prepare signatures for review, and properly report fundraising–all essential steps where mistakes could derail the entire process.
Although only 40 pages, this booklet is groundbreaking because of the power it gives to the people. Previously, getting a local initiative on the ballot was such a complex process that a citizen would likely have needed to hire a lawyer or enlist a politician to help them navigate through the red tape. Graves’ book doesn’t just cut through that red tape: it replaces it with a bright line that any citizen concerned with the direction of their community can follow. If governments have done what they can to make this last bastion of direct democracy as difficult as possible, Graves is making it simpler and accessible for everyone. In other words, this book makes democracy democratic again.
Working tirelessly to educate citizens is nothing new for Graves. As the president of the Lucy Burns Institute, which strives to connect people to their government, she is perhaps best known for her work as executive editor of Ballotpedia, a tremendous source of information on local and state elections that anyone can edit. In fact, Ballotpedia is the go-to resource for information on past and present ballot initiatives throughout the country.
Are there any laws in your community that need to be changed? Do bureaucrats have too much power, or are public-sector unions taking too much of your hard-earned money? Read Graves’ booklet. You may come away realizing that you never knew how much power you and your fellow citizens hold.
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