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direct democracy

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Direct democracy comprises a form of democracy and theory of civics wherein all citizens can directly participate in the decision-making process. Some adherents want both legislative and executive powers to be handled by the people, but most extant systems only allow legislative decisions.

Modern direct democracy is characterised by three pillars:

Direct democracy in its traditional form is Rule by the people through referenda. The people are given the right to pass laws, veto laws and withdraw support from a representative (if the system has representatives) at any time. Some of the issues surrounding the related notion of a direct democracy using the Internet and other communications technologies are dealt with in e-democracy/Internet democracy. In the United States when specific direct democracy issues, other than the election of representatives, reach a local- or state-level ballot, they are commonly referred to by local and state governments as "ballot questions" or "ballot measures".

Various governments around the world exhibit one or more of the above pillars; for example, just over half the states in the United States have citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives and the vast majority have either initiatives and/or referenda.

Switzerland provides the strongest example of a modern direct democracy, as it exhibits the first two pillars at both the local and federal levels. In the past 120 years more than 240 initiatives have been put to referendum. The populace has been conservative, granting about 10% of the initiatives put; in addition, they have often opted for a version of the initiative rewritten by government.

The second pillar can include the ability to hold a binding referendum on whether a given law should be scrapped. This effectively grants the populace a veto on government legislation. The third pillar gives the people the right to recall elected oficials by petition and referendum.

Citizen's assemblies are also directly democratic in nature. The Canadian province of British Columbia recently set up a Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform in which members were chosen at random for each riding. The citizens assembly has just recommended the province use STV to elect the provincial legislature, and that will go to a referendum in 2005. The citizen's assembly model has also been adopted in Ontario and Quebec.


Direct democracy was first experimented with in the ancient Athenian democracy of ancient Greece (beginning circa 508 BCE (Finley, 1973)), which was governed for two centuries by a general assembly of all male citizens, by randomly selected officials, and one elected representative charged to command the army of the city (strategos).

The restrictive conditions for citizenship in Athenian democracy (only male citizens could participate) and the small size (about 300,000) of the Athens city-state minimized the logistical difficulties inherent to this form of government.

Also relevant is the history of Roman democracy beginning circa 449 BCE (Cary, 1967). The ancient Roman Republic's "citizen lawmaking" -- citizen formulation and passage of law, as well as citizen veto of legislature-made law -- began about 449 BCE and lasted the approximately four hundred years to the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Many historians mark the end of the Republic on the passage of a law named the Lex Titia, 27 November 43 BCE (Cary, 1967). The presence of citizen lawmaking in Rome's governance was a strong, contributing factor to the rise of Rome, and its Greco-Roman civilization, to a greatness all out of proportion to the rest of the ancient world (Carey, 1967). Polybius (c.200-120 BCE) immortalized the Roman Republic's constitutional "citizen lawmaking" in Book VI of his The Histories.

Since Athenian democracy, however, this form of government has rarely been used (some governments have implemented it in part but few as fully as in ancient Athens). Modern mass-suffrage democracies generally rely on representatives elected by citizens (that is, representative democracy).

Modern-era citizen lawmaking began in the towns of Switzerland in the 1200s. In 1847, the Swiss added the "statute referendum" to their national constitution. They soon discovered that merely having the power to veto Parliament's laws was not enough. In 1891, they added the "constitutional amendment initiative". The Swiss political battles since 1891 have given the world a valuable experience base with the national-level constitutonal amendment initiative (Kobach, 1993).

Many political movements seek to restore some measure of direct democracy or a more deliberative democracy (based on consensus decision-making rather than simple majority rule). Such movements advocate more frequent public votes and referenda on issues, and less of the so-called "rule by politician". Collectively, these movements are referred to as advocating grassroots democracy or consensus democracy, to differentiate it from a simple direct democracy model. Another related movement is community politics which seeks to engage representatives with communities directly.

See also the history of direct democracy in the US.

Electronic direct democracy[edit]

Even before the predominance of the Internet, electronic constituent assemblies (ECA) were designed and used effectively. The ECAs combined television, telephone, and computer technologies to put representatives together with their constituencies in real time. The ECAs did the difficult consensus work of agenda-setting, defining proposals, amending proposals, and then voting (Hollinshead, 1998). ECAs have not been widely used up to this time.

For more on this subject, see e-democracy.

Pros and cons[edit]

The traditional, and to many still compelling, objection to direct democracy is that it is open to demagoguery. Another objection to direct democracy is that of practicality and efficiency. Deciding all or most matters of public importance by direct referendum is slow and expensive, and can result in public apathy and voter fatigue. Modern advocates of direct democracy often suggest e-democracy (sometimes including wikis, television and Internet forums) as a method of reducing these problems.

Since referendum questions have to be short and have a yes/no answer, voters may choose incoherent policies: for instance, a majority may vote in favor of reducing taxes, while a majority may also vote for increasing expenses for public education.

A common answer to the above problem in normal governance is hypothecation of taxes. The common response to this criticism of direct democracy is that the problem of inconsistent decision making is not only found in direct democracy.

In seeking to limit the popularity and societal foothold that direct democratic principles could naturally attain, government officials and adherents to strict republican principles tend to use memes such as "mob rule" to exacerbate a natural tendency in citizens to fear what might happen (especially with regards to their fundamental civil liberties) if all their fellow citizens were to directly make decisions on a significant degree of public policy.

Some political scholars use the term semi-direct democracy to describe direct democracy systems that are mediated in some way to protect civil liberties as well as protecting minority interests from majoritarianism. However, since direct democracy mechanisms are almost always mediated in this way, this term suggests a grey area where there is most likely none.

Interestingly, direct democracy models in practice usually focus on the adversarial process of advocating and choosing one of usually two broad or sweeping options defined for the citizens by experts. They usually de-emphasize the deeper, and some would argue more "direct" to public concerns, deliberation required for agreement that actually stands the test of time. For this reason, direct democracy is associated more with right-wing politics or left-wing politics, as shown by who backs many initiatives in U.S. states that provide for them. Note however that any decision resulting from an initiative must comply with prevailing constitutional law, which usually includes disallowing any abrogation of civil liberties. Thus, initiative results are often challenged in the courts.

The Canadian citizen's assembly model avoids many of the disadvantages of direct democracy and sets up a deliberative and consensual process quite different to initiatives and referendums.

Direct democracy in Switzerland[edit]

In Switzerland, single majorities are sufficient at the town, city, and state (canton and half-canton) level, but at the national level, "double majorities" are required. The intent of the double majorities is simply to ensure any citizen-made law's legitimacy (Kobach, 1993).

Double majorities are, first, the approval by a majority of those voting, and, second, a majority of states in which a majority of those voting approve the ballot measure. A citizen-proposed law cannot be passed in Switzerland at the national level if a majority of the people approve, but a majority of the states disapprove (Kobach, 2011).

In 1890, when the provisions for Swiss national citizen lawmaking were being debated by civil society and government, the Swiss copied the idea of double majorities from the United States Congress, in which House votes were to represent the people and Senate votes were to represent the states (Kobach, 1993). According to its supporters, this "legitimacy-rich" approach to national citizen lawmaking has been very successful. Kobach claims that Switzerland has had tandem successes both socially and economically which are matched by only a few other nations, and that the United States is not one of them. Kobach states at the end of his book, "Too often, observers deem Switzerland an oddity among political systems. It is more appropriate to regard it as a pioneer."

Direct democracy in the United States[edit]

In the United States, ballot measures and their corresponding referenda are widely used at the state and sub-state level. There is much state and federal case law, from the early 1900s to the 1990s, that protects the people's right to each of these direct democracy governance components (Magleby, 1984, and Zimmerman, 1999). The first United States Supreme Court ruling in favor of the citizen lawmaking was in Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company v. Oregon, 223 U.S. 118 -- in 1912 (Zimmerman, December 1999).

In various states, referenda through which the people rule include:

  • Election of representatives (constitutionally used in all 50 states).
  • Referrals by the legislature to the people of "proposed constitutional amendments" (constitutionally used in 49 states, excepting only Delaware -- Initiative & Referendum Institute, 2004).
  • Referrals by the legislature to the people of "proposed statute laws" (constitutionally used in all 50 states -- Initiative & Referendum Institute, 2004).
  • Constitutional amendment initiative is the most powerful citizen-initiated, direct democracy governance component. It is a constitutionally-defined petition process of "proposed constitutional law," which, if successful, results in its provisions being written directly into the state's constitution. Since constitutional law cannot be altered by state legislatures, this direct democracy component gives the people an automatic superiority, and their rightful sovereignty, over representative government (Magelby, 1984). It is utilized at the state level in eighteen states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota (Cronin, 1989). Among the eighteen states, there are three main types of the constitutional amendment initiative, with different degrees of involvement of the state legislature distinguishing between the types (Zimmerman, December 1999). Below state level, citizens in thousands of home rule jurisdictions -- e.g., cities, towns, boroughs, counties, school districts, water districts, etc. -- have this power over their unicameral legislative bodies, even in states that do not have it at the state level. In most jurisdictions, conflicts between proposed law referrals from the legislature and the proposed law, petition-process initiatives from civil society in the same election are resolved on the basis of which receives the highest number of votes (Kobach, 1993, and Zimmerman, December 1999).
  • Statute law initiative is a constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, petition process of "proposed statute law," which, if successful, results in law being written directly into the state's statutes. The statute initiative is used at the state level in twenty-one states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming (Cronin, 1989). Note that, in Utah, there is no constitutional provision for citizen lawmaking. All of Utah's I&R law is in the state statutes (Zimmerman, December 1999). In most states, there is no special protection for citizen-made statutes -- the legislature can begin to amend them immediately.
  • Statute law referendum is a constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, petition process of the "proposed veto of all or part of a legislature-made law," which, if successful, repeals the standing law. It is used at the state level in twenty-four states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming (Cronin, 1989).
  • The recall is a constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, petition process, which, if successful, removes an elected official from office by "recalling" the official's election. In most state and sub-state jurisdictions having this governance component, voting for the ballot that determines the recall includes voting for one of a slate of candidates to be the next office holder, if the recall is successful. It is utilized at the state level in eighteen states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2004, Recall Of State Officials).

There are now a total of 34 U.S. states with constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, direct democracy governance components (Zimmerman, December 1999). In the United States, only single majorities are required (simple majority of those voting) to approve any of these components.

In addition, many localities around the US also provide for some or all of these direct democracy governance components, and in specific classes of initiatives (like those for raising taxes), there is a supermajority voting threshold requirement. Even in states where direct democracy components are scant or nonexistent at the state level, there often exists local options for deciding specific issues, such as whether a county should be "wet" or "dry" in terms of whether alcohol sales are allowed.

See also the history of direct democracy in the US.

Direct democracy in Canada[edit]

In Canada, the use of citizens' assemblies, (also known as an estates-general in Quebec) citizen bodies chosen at random, is growing and avoids the disadvantages of older, more plebiscitary forms of direct democracy.

See also[edit]


  • Cary, M. (1967) A History Of Rome: Down To The Reign Of Constantine. St.Martin's Press, 2nd edition.
  • Cronin, Thomas E. (1989). Direct Democracy: The Politics Of Initiative, Referendum, And Recall. Harvard University Press. Despite the author's bias against direct democracy, the book is a good read for the issues, personalities, and organizations in the Progressive period of the Reform Era.
  • Cyber-Federalist, Number 14 (2002). Creating The Illusion Of Legitimacy. This is an issue treatment that shows the significance of participation to legitimacy in a polity that centers on participation. It results in a statement of what legitimacy is not, in such polities.
  • Erickson, Robert. Political History Of Nevada -- Questions On The Ballot
  • Finley, M.I. (1973). Democracy Ancient And Modern. Rutgers University Press.
  • Gerber, Elisabeth R. (1999). The Populist Paradox: Interest Group Influence And The Promise Of Direct Legislation. Princeton University Press.
  • Gerber, Elisabeth R. (2000). Stealing The Initiative: How State Government Responds To Direct Democracy. Prentice Hall.
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence (1976). Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment In America. Oxford University Press.
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence (1978). The Populist Moment: A Short History Of The Agrarian Revolt In America. Oxford University Press. This is an abridged version of Professor Goodwyn's 1976 book. Its "Introduction" is a must-read.
  • Kobach, Kris W. (1993). The Referendum: Direct Democracy In Switzerland. Dartmouth Publishing Company. Kobach's title is somewhat misleading. In addition to Switzerland, he discusses direct democracy in many countries, as well as in California.
  • Magleby, David B. (1984). Direct Legislation: Voting On Ballot Propositions In The United States. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Miller, Joshua I. (1991) The Rise And Fall Of Democracy In Early America, 1630--1789: The Legacy For Contemporary Politics Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Natelson, Robert G. (1999), Are Initiatives And Referenda Contrary To The Constitution's "Republican Form Of Government"?
  • National Conference of State Legislatures, (2004). Recall Of State Officials
  • Nebraska Legislature Online (2004). The History of Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature
  • Neitzke, Stephen (2004). State Of The Republic: Predator Elitism vs. Rights & Direct Democracy
  • Dennis Polhill (1996). Are Coloradans Fit To Make Their Own Laws? A Common Sense Primer On The Initiative Process
  • Polybius (c.150 BCE). The Histories. Oxford University, The Great Histories Series, Ed., Hugh R. Trevor-Roper and E. Badian. Translated by Mortimer Chanbers. Washington Square Press, Inc (1966).
  • Schmidt, David D. (1989). Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution. Temple University Press.
  • Tillian, Laura (c. 1977) Direct Democracy: An Historical Analysis Of The Initiative, Referendum, And Recall Process. People's Lobby.
  • Waters, M. Dane (2001). The Battle Over Citizen Lawmaking. Carolina Academic Press.
  • Willard, Joseph (1858). Willard Memoir; or Life And Times Of Major Simon Willard. Phillips, Sampson, And Company (Boston). Simon Willard was a co-founder of Concord, Massachusetts, in 1635. From the town's first winter, 1635-1636, its representative government used referenda to decide political issues.
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (1984). Participatory Democracy: Populism Revived. Praeger.
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (March 1999). The New England Town Meeting: Democracy In Action. Praeger Publishers.
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (December 1999). The Initiative: Citizen Law-Making. Praeger Publishers.
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (2001). The Referendum: The People Decide Public Policy. Praeger Publishers.

External links[edit]

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