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Debate: Direct democracy

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What are the pros and cons of direct democracy?

Background and context

"Direct democracy is the term used to describe particular forms of vote within any democratic system. The term direct democracy is commonly used to refer to three distinct types of vote: referendums, which are votes on a specific single issue or piece of legislation (rather than for a party or candidate); citizen initiatives, whereby citizens can propose new legislation or constitutional amendments by gathering enough signatures in a petition to force a vote on the proposal; and recalls, under which citizens can force a vote on whether to oust an incumbent elected official by collecting enough signatures in a petition.

The common characteristic of these mechanisms is that they all place more power directly in the hands of voters, as opposed to elected representatives. Direct democracy is therefore often seen as conflicting with representative democracy, in which voters elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. In contrast, under direct democracy, voters can themselves make decisions about specific policies or issues." (See a focus on direct democracy for more background)

Does direct democracy benefit the state, or its citizens? Can it become a threat to democracy? Can it improve governance?


Citizen decisions: Are citizens good at making policy?


If the US citizens only knew Article 1 Section 9 Paragraph 7&8:

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Where did the banker bailout money go? Where does the Defense spending money go? Why do the Bilderbergs and Trilateral commission choose our president? Every congressman should offer the constituents a chance to vote on the laws and appropriations. Our curren form of government is a plutocracy. I'm working on a Direct Participatory Democracy platform:

  • Citizens are competent enough to make good policy As Lupia and Mc Cubbins argue, voters do not necessarily need perfect information to make reasonable decisions. They can rely on information shortcuts and cues - and even if they are sometimes affected by their emotions their decisions do not have to be worse than the politicians' ones. As an example we can look to Switzerland where direct democracy works perfectly well as the people are able to decide even on complex issues regarding taxes or other "complicated" policies.
  • Direct democracy encourages citizens to educate themselves. It is certainly true that direct democracy requires that citizens participate actively in the political process and that they inform themselves on the issues surrounding them. This creates a strong incentive for citizens to inform themselves on the important issues of the day.
  • Citizens are best at determining their own interests. While politicians try to determine what's in the best interests of citizens, citizens themselves are better at making these kinds of determinations.
  • Nothing wrong about NIMBYism through initiatives. The people are right when they oppose a policy in their neighbourhood that would worsen their quality of life. The politicians who advocate new nuclear power plants or motorways are usually unwilling to have them at their own back-garden; why should the ordinary people be different? In summary, NIMBYism is beneficial for society because it prevents wrong decisions made by people who wouldn't have to carry the burden of living in a particular area.


  • Citizens are not informed enough to make good policy A further objection is that policy matters are often so complicated that not all voters understand them. The average voter may have little knowledge regarding the issues that should be decided. The arduous electoral process in representative democracies may mean that the elected leaders have above average ability and knowledge. Advocates of direct democracy argue, however, that laws need not be so complex and that having a permanent ruling class (especially when populated in large proportion by lawyers) leads to overly complex tax laws, etc. Critics doubt that laws can be extremely simplified and argue that many issues require expert knowledge. Supporters argue that such expert knowledge could be made available to the voting public.[1]
  • Voters tend to be self-centered in a direct democracy. Voters tend to look after their self-interests, rather than the bigger picture of what needs doing. NIMBYism ("Not in my back yard" thinking) is an example of this. Direct democracy favors this over the broader public interest.
  • Voters are too apathetic to make good policy-decisions. The average voter may not be interested in politics and therefore may not participate. In a system with citizen initiatives and direct democracy, high voter apathy may make the subsequent decisions unrepresentative of broader public opinion or possibly just bad policy.
  • Direct democracy promotes emotional decision-making. When presented with a single yes/no question, usually without any information on the issue at hand, people find it hard to divorce their own emotions and feelings from the voting process. And decisions driven by anger, fear and hatred while being made by uninformed public can hardly ever be the good ones. For example, in the first Irish referendum on Lisbon Treaty, 15% (!) of the voters made up their mind on the day of the referendum itself. [2]

Accountability: Does direct democracy produce superior accountability?


  • Representative democracy is less accountabile than direct democracy. Once elected, representatives are free to act as they please. Promises made before the election are often broken, and they frequently act contrary to the wishes of their electorate. Although theoretically it is possible to have a representative democracy in which the representatives can be recalled at any time; in practice this is usually not the case. An instant recall process would, in fact, be a form of direct democracy.
  • Direct democracy avoids unaccountable appointed officials. Elected individuals frequently appoint people to high positions based on their mutual loyalty, as opposed to their competence. For example, Michael D. Brown] was appointed to head the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, despite a lack of experience. His subsequent poor performance following Hurricane Katrina may have greatly increased the number of deaths. In a direct democracy where everybody voted for agency heads, it wouldn't be likely for them to be elected solely based on their relationship with the voters. On the other hand, most people may have no knowledge of the candidates and get tired of voting for every agency head. As a result, mostly friends and relatives may vote.[3]


  • Direct democracy lacks accountability of decision-making. We have to realize that the principle of democracy is not defined solely by the exercised right to vote one of the key pillars of democracy is accountability and both political and legal liability for decisions that are taken. It truly is so: should an elected representative pass a bill that is undemocratic or not mandated, they will face a penalty both in not being elected again and in being sued by the harmed counterparts, either for abuse of their mandate or for various charges related to their transgression. However, this kind of liability is unknown in the system of direct democracy and its implementation. Additionally, in some countries, legal and political liability for decisions passed within the framework of measures of direct democracy is passed to the local institutions which are legally bound by the outcome of the referenda, even though they may not have had anything to do with it. It is impossible to hold anyone truly accountable except for the people, and you run into practicalities there, some of which are mainly that it would be undemocratic as well.

Representative government: How does direct democracy compare to rep. government?


  • Representative government produces un-representative leaders. Individuals elected to office in a representative democracy tend not to be demographically representative of their constituency. They tend to be wealthier and more educated, and are also more predominantly male as well as members of the majority race, ethnic group, and religion than a random sample would produce. They also tend to be concentrated in certain professions, such as lawyers. Elections by district may reduce, but not eliminate, those tendencies, in a segregated society. Direct democracy would be inherently representative, assuming universal suffrage (where everyone can vote).
  • Direct democracy checks shortcomings of representative democracy. Politicians are the victims of many things: be it their selfish interest (or bias) which may result in rearing to corruption, or just the pressure that rich and well-organized interest groups exert to persuade the politician that it is in his electorate's interest to pass (or vote down) the legislature in a move which is in all actuality detrimental to the majority of his voters (see a book by Fareed Zakaria Illiberal Democracy Home and Abroad). That means that often the politicians do not represent the people of the electorate, and thus act in contradiction to democracy. Direct democracy places a check on these shortcomings.


  • Representative democracy is more agile and efficient. 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 (especially in a large community), and can result in public apathy and voter fatigue, especially when repeatedly faced with the same questions or with questions which are unimportant to the voter.[4]
  • Direct democracy disables unpopular but necessary decisions. The problem with direct democracy is that the general public can hardly ever think about the issues at hand in the long-term. People may be aware of the fact that something needs to be done about some burning issue, however, they are unwilling to propose any plan if it entails some discomfort to them. An example of this is called NIMBYism: "Not In My Backyard" point of view. In practise it occurs when a broadly necessary thing, such as wind-turbines, are rejected "in my back-yard" due to selfish interests. Elected leaders can help push these kinds of necessary decisions through.
  • Direct democracy generally only works on a small scale. Direct democracy works on a small system. For example, the Athenian Democracy governed a city of, at its height, about 30,000 eligible voters (free adult male citizens.) Town meetings, a form of local government once common in New England, has also worked well, often emphasizing consensus over majority rule. The use of direct democracy on a larger scale has historically been more difficult, however. Nevertheless, developments in technology such as the internet, user-friendly and secure software, and inexpensive, powerful personal computers have all inspired new hope in the practicality of large scale applications of direct democracy.[5]

Corruption: Dees direct democracy help combat corruption?


  • Direct democracy generally reduces the risks of corruption. The concentration of power intrinsic to representative government is seen by some as tending to create corruption. In direct democracy, the possibility for corruption is reduced.
  • Rep government can lead to conflicts of interest. The interests of elected representatives do not necessarily correspond with those of their constituents. An example is that representatives often get to vote to determine their own salaries. It is in their interest that the salaries be high, while it is in the interest of the electorate that they be as low as possible, since they are funded with tax revenue. The typical results of representative democracy are that their salaries relatively high.


Does it respect all the democratic principals?


  • Direct democracy promotes democracy in practice. In a pure system of representative democracy, there is no way to stop the unholy alliances of the politicians and interest groups. However, if we implement measures of direct democracy, we gain an all-new option to counterbalance that. Initiatives, recalls, and referenda are the ultimate opportunity to the citizens to say "Hang on a minute, this is not in my interest at all".
  • Political parties are an unfortunate consequence of represenative democracy. The formation of political parties is considered by some to be a "necessary evil" of representative democracy, where combined resources are often needed to get candidates elected. However, such parties mean that individual representatives must compromise their own values and those of the electorate, in order to fall in line with the party platform. At times, only a minor compromise is needed. At other times such a large compromise is demanded that a representative will resign or switch parties. In structural terms, the party system may be seen as a form of oligarchy. (Hans Köchler, 1995) Meanwhile, in direct democracy, political parties have virtually no effect, as people do not need to conform with popular opinions. In addition to party cohesion, representatives may also compromise in order to achieve other objectives, by passing combined legislation, where for example minimum wage measures are combined with tax relief. In order to satisfy one desire of the electorate, the representative may have to abandon a second principle. In direct democracy, each issue would be decided on its own merits, and so "special interests" would not be able to include unpopular measures in this way.[6]
  • Direct democracy checks the tendency toward package deals. Given that voters decide on single issues instead of a package of policies that they might not fully be in the voters' interests, the people are freer to choose what is the best for them. In a representative democracy, however, these package deals are usually comprehensive programmes that are altered after the elections are held. That means that politicians from the parties that form a government are free to choose which part of each package works the best - for them.
  • Being a part of the process is an important requirement in any democracy. The citizens identify themselves more closely with the government policies when they are allowed to cast votes. Only when they do so is the government a government by the people, of the people and for the people.


  • Direct democracy hardly allows for mixed and varied representation of all people in the passed policies. In the representative democracy, laws in the parliamentary bodies undergo a lot of scrutiny, repeated rewritings, curbings, mitigations and other checks that in the end, the law that is passed is usually okay on principle with most of the representatives. These represent all kinds of voters -- and indeed, a democratic decision is one that implements the majority decision while keeping all minority rights, even though the result of that may be a little hard to read. However, direct democracy and its means (mostly referenda) need simplification (commonly to yes/no questions). As a result, most things passed by measures of direct democracy are unbalanced and that very often, measures of direct democracy contribute to majority rule without any respect for the minority.
  • Unequal competition. "Competing groups in a referendum do not necessarily possess equality in the resources which they have at their disposal and this may give one side an unfair advantage over the other in putting its case across to the electorate. This problem is accentuated if the government contributes to the financing of one side's campaign, as occured in the early stages of the 1995 Irish referendum on divorce." ("Teach Yourself: Politics", Peter Joyce)

Politics: Is direct democracy always desirable?



  • Referenda may devalue the role performed by by legislative bodies. "In some countries (such as France) they were deliberately introduced to weaken the power of parliament. Although they can be reconciled with the concept of parliamentary sovereignty when they are consultative and do not require the legislature to undertake a particular course of action, it is difficult to ignore the outcome of a popular vote when it does not theoretically tie the hands of public policy makers." ("Teach Yourself: Politics", Peter Joyce)
  • Referenda can be seen as a way to protest against the government's policies. As the post-referendum survey in Ireland shows, one of the reasons people voted against the Lisbon Treaty was that some of them saw it as a good way to prostest against the government's policies (instead of a reason one might expect - that they were against the treaty itself).

Historical figures: Where did historic democratic figures stand on this?


  • Many founding fathers believed in government by the people. Thomas Jefferson once said: "Men by their makeup are naturally divided into two camps: those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of higher classes; and those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them the safest and most honest, if not always the wisest repository of the public interest. These two camps exist in every country, and wherever men are free to think, speak, and write, they will identify themselves."[7]


  • American founders supported rep democracy over direct democracy. Direct democracy was very much opposed by the framers of the United States Constitution and some signers of the Declaration of Independence. They saw a danger in majorities forcing their will on minorities. As a result, they advocated a representative democracy in the form of a constitutional republic over a direct democracy.

Economics: Is direct democracy always desirable?


  • Direct democracy is inexpensive. John F. Knutsen. "Direct Democracy." 1993: "One objection to widespread use of direct democracy concerns its alleged high direct costs. According to Kendall and Louw (Kendall, 1989, page 135), the Swiss Federal chancellery estimates the costs of a national initiative combined with a federal counterproposal to about 1 Swiss franc per voter. Even when special ballots have to be held to decide single issues, the costs are modest. In California such a special ballot was held in 1973. It cost the state about USD 20 million, or about 80 cents (USD 0.80) per capita. (Walker, page 93). In addition to the direct costs incurred by the government, comes the costs associated with launching an initiative. In Switzerland this cost is estimated to at least one franc per petition signature (Junker, page 122). In California initiative campaigns cost several million dollars. In per capita terms however, these costs are still marginal, which is why this method of making decisions is so effective. Even if we assume that the Swiss spend a few million francs (everything included) on national issues every year, this has to be compared with a Swiss federal budget of about 23 billion francs (1985) (Junker, page 40)."


  • Direct democracy is expensive. "Direct democracy becomes too costly in other than very small political units when more than a few isolated issues must be considered. The costs of decision-making become too large relative to the possible reductions in expected external costs that collective action might produce." (Buchanan, J.M. and Tullock, G. (1962)The Calculus of Consent:Logical foundations of constitutional democracy)

Pro/con sources



See also

External links and references


  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (December 1999). The Initiative: Citizen Law-Making. Praeger Publishers.
  • Fareed Zakaria, "The Future of Freedom"
  • Fareed Zakaria, "Illiberal Democracy Home and Abroad"
  • Peter Joyce, "Teach Yourself: Politics"

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