3. Nov. 2006
Swiss and Oregonians:
Same system, same experiences, same hopes -
By Andreas Gross (Zurich, Switzerland)
(Political scientist, Director of the Scientific Institute for Direct
Democracy, Member of the Swiss Parliament, in these weeks in Oregon to
follow the debates for the Nov 7th)
What Oregon is in the US, Switzerland is in Europe: The state which is the
pioneer of direct democracy on the respective continent and where you may
observe the most intensive use of ballot issues in America and Europe.
In Oregon and Switzerland people are used to have and to use their political
power. Since 1912 Oregon saw 347 initiatives on the ballot (10 % more than
in California), which is about 12 % of all citizens-initiatives of the
24 US-States with direct democracy.
In Switzerland since 1891 more than 250 initiatives qualified for the
ballot-box; this represents more than 90 % of all European citizens
initiatives, because of all 48 European states besides Switzerland only in
Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland citizens have the right to
impose a people’s decision even against the will of the government or the
In other countries - in France by a decision of the president, in Ireland
when the constitution is amended, in Austria or recently also in the
Netherlands if the Parliament agrees, in Denmark when European matters are
in stake or when countries join the European Union - people may vote too,
with the consent of the authorities. 636 peoples decisions took place in Europe
since 1945, two third of them happened in Switzerland.
There are even global trends which are the similar in Oregon, the U.S.,
Switzerland and Europe: Since 1970 the use of direct democracy intensives in
a way, that in the 36 years since then, you saw everywhere more than the
double of citizen-driven initiatives or referendums than in the twice as
many years before. And in Europe after 1989, when the number of democratic
states more then doubled, you saw in the east and the west more initiatives
and referendums that ever before.
Not only the present use and the political culture, not only quantity and
quality should stimulate comparison between Oregon and Switzerland; it is
also the common history which legitimizes it. What in the first half of the
20th century become known in the U.S. as “the Oregon system” or “the
Oregon system of Direct Democracy”, came to Oregon under the label “Swiss
The people’s movement, which introduced 1902 the initiative- and
referendum-rights in the Oregonian constitution, started 1892 in Milwaukee
at a meeting of the Farmers’ Alliance in the Clackamas County. Farmers,
craftsmen and workers came together to discuss a new small book of a New
Yorker union-man and journalist, John W. Sullivan, who offered insights of
new democratic experiences in some Swiss cantons during the last quarter of
the 19th century, the initiative and referendum.
Two years later an emigrated Swiss, now living in Portland, send a letter to
the editor of a Zurich based social-democratic newspaper in Switzerland and
asked for advice. He wrote, that at the coast of the pacific ocean he witness
the same peoples’ movement for the introduction of initiative and referendum
rights into the state constitution as he remembered from the canton of
Zurich in the 1860ies. The editors’ comment was hopeful: He expressed his joy
that the “fantastic idea of direct legislation by the people makes its way
around the world”.
The historical parallels were really astonishing: Same experiences by
sociologically similar people led them to ask for the same democratic
reforms although they lived on two different continents and 30 years away
from each other. What in Zurich was called the “System of Mr. Escher” a
tycoon of the mid 19th century who owned railway-companies, banks and
controlled the legislative as well as the executive side of the government
of Zurich was called in Oregon the “control of the legislature by the
The economic and social effects were the same: Exorbitant railroad rates
and tight money supply, prize dumping for farmers goods and products,
increase of mortgage rates: Life for ordinary people became more and more
difficult, the representative institutions of government did neither
represent their needs, interests nor hopes, and that’s why they asked for
the last word in the political decision making process.
Of course also direct democracy did not fulfill all political hopes of
ordinary citizens, farmers and working class people, neither in Oregon nor
in Switzerland. Too divided are the interests of even ordinary people, too
often they disagree on speed, substance and perspectives of reforms and
But in both states more then three quarters of the citizens would never want
to go back to the monopole of representative democracy; on the contrary:
Interesting enough on both sides of the Atlantic both peoples are convinced
that direct democracy makes representative democracy more representative.
Governors and legislators have to listen more and better and can’t ignore the
people’s main concerns.
Of course you hear also in Switzerland elitist views as expressed in these
pages by Steven K. Green (“On ballot measures this year: Just say no!”
Oregonian, October 13, 2006). But the answers are also similar: Members of
parliaments too are not always totally informed of all aspects of a decision
they take, they also have to listen to advices by experts and lobbyists.
Special interests have strong influences in all democracies, not only in
direct democracies and also parliamentary decisions may have unintended
consequences. The point is that the existence and the use of the citizens’
rights for initiatives and referendums reduce the risks and the amount of
special interest influences, unintended decisions and insufficient knowledge
more and better than when these rights do not exist.
The more citizens have to say, the more they are listened, the more decision-
makers think about them, deliberate better and the higher the chances are,
that the decisions will serve the interest of most and not only of few. These are
the experiences with direct democracy in Oregon and Switzerland, and that’s why
so many citizens in the United Kingdom, Germany or France miss these
rights and are so eager to get them.
Many signs do indicate that we live a worldwide crises of democracy today:
But not because people are against the idea of democracy or they have too
much to say, but because the system has in many countries not yet been
reformed as in Switzerland and Oregon some decades ago and because democracy
has not at all yet been installed on the transnational level, where the most
dramatic changes happen and people’s voices have really to be heard.