Nel novembre 2012 mi recai a San Francisco per un viaggio di lavoro. In occasione di una festa organizzata dall’amico Greg Delaune conobbi Ira Johnston, uno fra i tanti californiani che il 6 novembre si recarono alle urne per eleggere il Presidente degli Stati Uniti d’America ed esprimere una preferenza sui numerosi quesiti referendari.
Ira è un architetto paesaggista con un’esperienza pluriennale in progetti di sviluppo residenziale a ridotto impatto ambientale. Afro-americano nato negli anni ’60, è cresciuto in un clima di entusiasmo generato dalle lotte che gli hanno concesso non solo il diritto di voto ma anche quello di partecipare pienamente alla vita democratica americana. La sua preoccupazione per la giustizia sociale e la tutela dell’ambiente sono maturate ancora di più quando queste sono state attaccate dalla speculazione e dagli interessi commerciali.
Nel contesto del tutto informale in cui mi trovai colsi l’opportunità di porgere numerose domande ad Ira. Le sue risposte mi fecero riflettere poiché ritenevo fondamentale, e lo ritengo tuttora, il punto di vista dei cittadini comuni sulle questioni inerenti la partecipazione diretta nei processi decisionali pubblici. Per questa ragione il giorno successivo al nostro incontro mi appuntai alcune domande con il proposito di riformularle in un questionario scritto da porre alla sua attenzione in un momento successivo.
Nei giorni scorsi, a distanza di 4 mesi ho inoltrato le domande ad Ira, il quale ha diligentemente replicato a stretto giro di posta. Le sue risposte hanno evidenziato con semplicità ed estrema chiarezza alcune delle differenze segnano un divario nell’esercizio dei diritti politici tra California ed Italia e gli effetti che ne derivano.
Di seguito alcuni dei punti salienti prima di allegare la serie completa delle domande e delle risposte in lingua originale:
- i cittadini californiani ricevono regolarmente gli opuscoli informativi per scegliere tra i candidati alle diverse cariche pubbliche e per decidere in merito alle diverse iniziative popolari
- gli opuscoli informativi possono essere ricevuti via posta elettronica su richiesta dei cittadini per risparmiare su carta e costi di consegna. In alternativa è inoltre possibile accedere ad una versione audio online per approfondire i contenuti dei quesiti
- il dibattito pubblico che si genera in occasione dei referendum è piuttosto esteso (giornali, riviste, siti internet, etc.) e coinvolge i cittadini nelle discussioni della loro routine quotidiana
- gli Stati americani competono l’uno con l’altro per introdurre le migliori politiche e perseguire il progresso sociale (es. California ed Illinois sono stati gli stati precursori nell’introduzione dei diritti gay)
- gli Stati dove i diritti politici sono esercitati più intensamente come la California sono un modello ed un riferimento per gli altri. Attirano risorse umane e finanziarie per avviare iniziative popolari che possano stimolare il mutamento ed il progresso sociale anche negli altri Stati della federazione
- la democrazia diretta implica uno sforzo notevole da parte dei cittadini, tuttavia questo permette loro di accrescere la loro consapevolezza sociale e di trasformare lo Stato di cui fanno parte, nella fattispecie la California, in una comunità con una forte leadership culturale
- i referendum vengono concentrati in occasione delle elezioni (possibilmente quelle presidenziali) per garantire una maggiore affluenza dei cittadini
- nei referendum non ci sono limiti di materia tant’è che si può votare anche sulle questioni fiscali e sugli incrementi degli stipendi del personale con incarichi pubblici
- i cittadini dimostrano il loro senso civico ponendo l’interesse collettivo al di sopra dell’esclusivo interesse personale al momento del voto e per questo se necessario possono votare anche su un incremento dell’imposizione fiscale (es. imposta per finanziare le scuole pubbliche)
- i provvedimenti dei rappresentanti politici rispettano i risultati delle votazioni popolari ed i referendum sono un modo per garantire ulteriormente che la volontà popolare sia rispettata
- non esiste quorum come Italia poiché questo sarebbe un disincentivo alla partecipazione dei cittadini
- le procedure per la raccolta delle firme non sono caratterizzate dalla stessa complessità burocratica esistente in Italia, la quale è un ulteriore forte disincentivo alla partecipazione popolare
- è possibile votare via posta chiedendolo preventivamente
- esiste il referendum finanziario per approvare o disapprovare impegni di spesa pubblica
ORIGINAL ENLISH INTERVIEW:
Ira Johnson is a rainscape designer with more than a decade of experience designing custom residential projects that blend an ecological landscape design approach with stonework, ceramic tile, woodwork and expansive planting designs.
As an African-American and a child of the 1960s he was raised to respect the struggles that it took to allow him the rights to vote and fully participate in American democracy. His concerns for societal and environmental justice have only increased as these issues have increasingly come under assault by big business interest.
How often do you vote for elections, referendums and others? We have a ballot every two years, either for local (San Francisco), State (California), or National (US). I vote every single time.
Before going to vote, do you receive a voter information pamphlet issued by the authorities? Yes.
Which authority prints the pamphlet? Can you describe it? What does it contain? Ballots are prepared by County Election Officials or by State Election Officials. The ballots contain the measure to be voted on; an explanation of the reasoning behind the measure; a cost analysis of the measure, and who would pay what; and a pro and con argument for or against the measure.
In the brochure, is there information regarding financial support of the initiative? Yes.
Which is the level of transparency of the system to finance the different positions in the ballot? The transparency of the financing is pretty clear, but the names of the measures can sometimes be deceptive. Often I and others depend on independent (and trusted) analysis of measures to get balance.
How do you decide how to vote? Do you consult newspapers, magazines or web sites? Do you consult experts part of your network? Are there any independent newspapers or other types of progressive informative sources that you consult before the polling day? All of the above. I get information from the news; from public policy debates; from independent progressive sources that I trust; and from friends and family.
Do you discuss the issues proposed in the ballots with friends, family members or random people that you meet in your daily life before the vote? Yes, always.
Is it common that citizens organize parties and meetings with their peers to debate and collect information before the polling day? If yes, can you describe it? I don’t think that is very common (people are very busy…), but I have met regularly with a couple of friends and my partner (Steve) to do so before voting.
Before going to California, you were residing in Chicago (Illinois)? Are there the same political rights as in California? Yes, Illinois is also progressive, but not as much as California. For example: California and Illinois both have protective laws regarding Gay rights, but California also has progressive laws regarding marijuana, Illinois does not (yet).
California is considered a leading state for public policies. Why in your opinion? It has a historical position as a cultural leader because of its role with music in the 1960s and Hollywood then and now. It also has a very diverse population (much more so than most other States). It also is a rich State with a very large economy. Politically, California has come to be lead by our more progressive Democrat Party. Republicans have no power here.
Which role does direct democracy play in such a situation? In my opinion, too much of a role. There are too many ballot measures. Sometimes we vote 2 or 3 times on an issue before it’s resolved. As my answers to previous questions indicate, it takes a lot of time, effort, and research to keep up with the issues. And because of this, less people participate than would otherwise.
Is it true that California attracts resources to sustain initiatives that would be difficult to promote elsewhere? Yes because California is a big State and a cultural leader. There is a saying here that “As California goes, so goes the Nation.”
Which political conditions characterize California? Are political rights more developed than other states? No, not really. The Nation generally shares the same ideals regarding political rights.
Do you vote for elections and referendums on the same day? Yes.
Is the tendency to concentrate referendums on some specific date? If yes, why? Yes. Sometimes referendums are put up for a vote on ‘off years’ when there are few offices up for election (the second year after a presidential election for example), and therefore less public participation when only the hardcore political people like me will show up to vote.
Can you remember which issues have been submitted to ballot in coincidence of the last Presidential election? Honestly, no. I think this is a result of feeling assaulted by referendum every 2 years.
Can you remember the results? No.
You voted for a GMO’s issue, can you tell us how you voted and why? I do remember that one now that you mentioned it. I voted against the measure because I don’t think all GMOs are bad, and that the measure was promoted by a few people (compared to the masses who don’t know what GMOs are) who believe that all GMOs are bad. I think that some are bad and some are not, and that the science of GMOs is needed as climate change presents more challenges to food security.
You told me that despite you have no children, you voted to increase taxes in order to finance public school. What are your reasons? I believe in the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” and educated children are better for society as a whole.
Do the politicians accept the results from the ballots? Are the results made effective by public policies and do they affect citizens life? Yes, mostly. Until they have a chance to reword a measure and put it up for a vote again if they have the resources to finance the effort.
How often do you skip the voting exercise? Never.
In Italy there is a participation quorum of the 50%. This means that if there not at least 50% of the people with political rights going to vote, the referendum is not valid. In recent years, the majority of the referendums have been invalidated. Basically, in those cases, the citizens not caring about public issues have decided for the citizens who have gone to vote. What are your thoughts on this quorum and can you comment this situation? I’m glad that is not the case here. Americans have a historical low participation rate, especially in non Presidential elections. Also Republicans and conservatives often try to restrict and lower voter turnout and participation.
Have you ever signed to promote an initiative? Yes. How do you sign to support an initiative? There are ‘signature gatherers’ who stand on sidewalk corners and outside popular businesses trying to collect enough voters’ signatures to get a measure on the ballot. They are paid a dollar per signature.
In Italy, in order to support an initiative, signatures must be collected on specific papers endorsed by public authorities. A citizen can sign to support an initiative only in presence of a public officer (ie. Counsellor, notary, judge, etc.) and for every single signature the promoters must request an electoral certification to the electoral office of the Council. Do you have the same level of controls and bureaucracy in California? No.
In Italy, a citizen needs to show an identity document (I.D. card, etc.) to a public officer, both when he signs to promote an initiative and when he goes to vote, is it the same in California? No. You just have to be registered in your County, and sign your signature when you go to vote. Then that registered voter cannot vote twice because they signed the rolls when they voted.
Do you know how many signatures (or the percentage of the voting population) do you need to collect in order to promote a referendum in the city of San Francisco, in the county and in California state? The numbers are different for San Francisco (which is also its own County) and the State. I think it takes one million signatures for the State. I don’t know how many it takes for local measures.
In Italy we have just abrogative referendum, which means that citizens can only eliminate a law or part of it. This means that citizens can’t propose a new law. What are your thoughts on such a rule? I like it. If we had that here, it would force the legislators to pass the laws and be accountable for their actions. Giving voters the opportunity to roll back unpopular laws.
Which day of the week do you generally vote, is it a workday or weekend? All our elections are on Tuesdays (to vote in public), but one can vote by mail on any day.
Can you describe to us how voting by mail works? You have to request a mail in ballot and return it by a deadline that’s before election day.
In Italy citizens can’t vote on public wages or on the indemnity of the politicians, can citizens do it in San Francisco and in California state? Yes, but I think only to increase wages.
In Italy citizens can’t vote on introducing, eliminating, substituting, rising or decreasing taxes, can citizens do it in San Francisco and in California state? Yes.
In Italy citizens can’t vote on approving or disapproving government decisions on public spending, can citizens do it in San Francisco and in California state? Yes (makes you wonder why we have a consul of legislators).