Direct democracy

Direct democracy

[dih-rekt, dahy-]

Direct democracy, classically termed pure democracy, comprises a form of democracy and theory of civics where in sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate. Depending on the particular system, this assembly might pass executive motions, make laws, elect and dismiss officials and conduct trials. Where the assembly elects officials, these are executive agents or direct representatives, bound to the will of the people.

Direct democracy stands in contrast to representative democracy, where sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people, usually on the basis of election. However, it is possible to combine the two into representative direct democracy.

Modern direct democracy is characterized by three pillars:

Referendums 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. Recalls gives the people the right to remove from office elected officials before the end of their term.


The first recorded democracy, which was also direct, was the Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC. The main bodies in the Athenian democracy were the assembly, composed by male citizens, the boule which was composed by 500 citizens chosen annually by lot), and the law courts composed by a massive number of juries chosen by lot, with no judges. Out of the male population of 30,000, several thousand citizens were politically active every year and many of them quite regularly for years on end. The Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also directest in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule and law courts controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business. Modern democracies do not use institutions that resemble the Athenian system of rule, due to the problems arising when implementing such on the scale of modern societies.

Also relevant is the history of Roman republic beginning circa 449 BC (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 BC and lasted the approximately four hundred years to the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Many historians mark the end of the Republic on the passage of a law named the Lex Titia, 27 November 43 BC (Cary, 1967).

Modern-era citizen lawmaking began in the towns of Switzerland in the 13th century. 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 constitutional amendment initiative (Kobach, 1993). Today, Switzerland is still an example of 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, approving only about 10% of the initiatives put before them; in addition, they have often opted for a version of the initiative rewritten by government. (See Direct democracy in Switzerland below.) Another example is the United States, where, despite being a federal republic where no direct democracy exists at the federal level, over half the states (and many localities) provide for citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives (also called "ballot measures" or "ballot questions") and the vast majority of the states have either initiatives and/or referendums. (See Direct democracy in the United States below.)

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. More concisely, the concept of open source governance applies principles of the free software movement to the governance of people, allowing the entire populace to participate in government directly, as much or as little as they please. This development strains the traditional concept of democracy, because it does not give equal representation to each person. Some implementations may even be considered democratically-inspired meritocracies, where contributers to the code of laws are given preference based on their ranking by other contributers.


Many political movements within representative democracies, seek to restore some measure of direct democracy or a more deliberative democracy, to include consensus decision-making rather than simply majority rule. Such movements advocate more frequent public votes and referendums 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.

Anarchists (usually Social anarchists) have advocated forms of direct democracy as an alternative to the centralized state and capitalism, however, some anarchists such as individualist anarchists have criticized direct democracy and democracy in general for ignoring the rights of the minority and instead have advocated a form of consensus decision-making. Libertarian Marxists, however, fully support direct democracy in the form of the proletarian republic and see majority rule and citizen participation as virtues. Within Marxist circles, "proletarian democracy" is synonymous with direct democracy, just as "bourgeois democracy" is synonymous with representative democracy.

Arguments for direct democracy

Arguments in favor of direct democracy tend to focus on perceived flaws in the alternative, representative democracy which sometimes is seen as a form of oligarchy (Hans Köchler, 1995) and its properties, such as nepotism, lack of transparency and accountability to the people etc:

  • Non representation. 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). Critics counter that direct democracy can be unrepresentative, if not all eligible voters participate in every vote, and that this is lacking voter turnout is not equally distributed among various groups. Greater levels of education, especially regarding law, seem to have many advantages and disadvantages in lawmaking.
  • Conflict 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 are much higher than this average, however. Critics counter that salaries for representatives are necessary, otherwise only the wealthy could afford to participate.
  • 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.
  • Political parties. 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.
  • Government transition. The change from one ruling party to another, or to a lesser extent from one representative to another, may cause a substantial governmental disruption and change of laws. For example, US Secretary of State (then National Security Advisor) Condoleezza Rice cited the transition from the previous Clinton Administration as a principal reason why the United States was unable to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Bush Administration had taken office just under 8 months prior to the attacks.
  • Cost of elections. Many resources are spent on elections which could be applied elsewhere. Furthermore, the need to raise campaign contributions is felt to seriously damage the neutrality of representatives, who are beholden to major contributors, and reward them, at the very least, by granting access to government officials. However, direct democracy would require many more votings, which would be costly, and also probably campaigns by those who may lose or gain from the results.
  • Patronage and nepotism. 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.
  • Lack of transparency. Supporters argue that direct democracy, where people vote directly for issues concerning them, would result in greater political transparency than representative democracy. Critics argue that representative democracy can be equally transparent. In both systems people cannot vote on everything, leaving many decisions to some forms of managers, requiring strong Freedom of Information legislation for transparency.
  • Insufficient sample size. It is often noted that prediction markets most of the time produce remarkably efficient predictions regarding the future. Many, maybe even most, individuals make bad predictions, but the resulting average prediction is often surprisingly good. If the same applies to making political decisions, then direct democracy may produce very efficient decisions.
  • Lack of accountability. 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.
  • Voter apathy. If voters have more influence on decisions, it is argued that they will take more interest in and participate more in deciding those issues.

Arguments against direct democracy

  • 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, have 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. Furthermore ideas such as council democracy and the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat are if nothing else proposals to enact direct democracy in nation-states and beyond.
  • Practicality and efficiency. 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. Modern advocates of direct democracy often suggest e-democracy (sometimes including wikis, television and Internet forums) to address these problems.
  • Demagoguery. A fundamental objection to direct democracy is that the public generally gives only superficial attention to political issues and is thus susceptible to charismatic argument or demagoguery. The counter argument is that representative democracy causes voters not to pay attention, since each voter's opinion doesn't matter much and their legislative power is limited. However, if the electorate is large, direct democracy also brings the effect of diminished vote significance, lacking a majority vote policy.

One possible solution is demanding that a proposal requires the support of at least 50% of all citizens in order to pass, effectively meaning that absent voters count as "No" votes. This would prevent minorities from gaining power. However, this still means that the majority could be swayed by demagoguery. Also, this solution could be used by representative democracy.

  • Complexity. 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. Supporters further argue that policy matters are often so complicated that politicians in traditional representative democracy do not all understand them. In both cases, the solution for politicians and demos of the public is to have experts explain the complexities.
  • Voter apathy. The average voter may not be interested in politics and therefore may not participate. This immediately reveals the lack of interest either in the issues themselves or in the options; sometimes people need to redefine the issues before they can vote either in favor or in opposition. A small amount of voter apathy is always to be expected, and this is not seen as a problem so long the levels remain constant among (do not target) specific groups of people. That is, if 10% of the population voted with representative samples from all groups in the population, then in theory, the outcome would be correct. Nevertheless, the high level of voter apathy would reveal a substantial escalation in voter fatigue and political disconnect. The risk is, however, that voter apathy would not apply to special interest groups. For example, most farmers may vote for a proposal to increase agricultural subsidies to themselves while the general population ignore this issue. If many special interest groups do the same thing, then the resources of the state may be exhausted. One possible solution is compulsory voting, although this has problems of its own such as restriction of freedom, costs of enforcement, and random voting.
  • Self-interest. It is very difficult under a system of direct democracy to make a law which benefits a smaller group if it hurts a larger group, even if the benefit to the small group outweighs that of the larger group. This point is also an argument in favour of Direct Democracy, as current representative party systems often make decisions that are not in line with or in favour of the mass of the population, but of a small group. It should be noted that this is a criticism of democracy in general. "Fiscal responsibility", for instance, is difficult under true direct democracy, as people generally do not wish to pay taxes, despite the fact that governments need a source of revenue. One possible solution to the issue regarding minority rights and public welfare is to have a constitution that requires that minority interests and public welfare (such as healthcare, etc) be protected and ensures equality, as is the case with representative democracy. The demos would be able to work out the "how" of providing services, but some of the "what" that is to be provided could be enshrined in a constitution.
  • Suboptimality. Results may be quite different depending on whether people vote on single issues separately in referendums, or on a number of options bundled together by political parties. As explained in the article on majority rule, the results from voting separately on the issues may be suboptimal, which is a strong argument against the indiscriminate use of referendums. With direct democracy, however, the one-vote one-human concept and individualism with respect to voting would tend to discourage the formation of parties. Further optimality might be achieved, argue proponents, by having recallable delegates to specialized councils and higher levels of governance, so that the primary focus of the everyday citizen would be on their local community.
  • Manipulation by timing and framing. If voters are to decide on an issue in a referendum, a day (or other period of time) must be set for the vote and the question must be framed, but since the date on which the question is set and different formulations of the same question evoke different responses, whoever sets the date of the vote and frames the question has the possibility of influencing the result of the vote. Manipulation is also present in pure democracy with a growing population. Original members of the society are able to instigate measures and systems that enable them to manipulate the thoughts of new members to the society. Proponents counter that a portion of time could be dedicated and mandatory as opposed to a per-issue referendum. In other words, each member of civil society could be required to participate in governing their society each week, day, or other period of time.


Direct democracy in Switzerland

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 on constitutional matters. 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 (i.e. initiative) cannot be passed in Switzerland at the national level if a majority of the people approve, but a majority of the states disapprove (Kobach, 1993). For referendums or proposition in general terms (like the principle of a general revision of the Constitution), the majority of those voting is enough (Swiss constitution, 2005).

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." Finally, the Swiss political system, including its direct democratic devices in a multi-level governance context, becomes increasingly interesting for scholars of EU integration (see Trechsel, 2005).

Direct democracy in the United States

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. For example, James Madison, in Federalist No. 10 advocates a constitutional republic over direct democracy precisely to protect the individual from the will of the majority. He says, "A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said "Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state — it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage." Alexander Hamilton said, "That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity...".

Despite the framers' intentions in the beginning of the republic, ballot measures and their corresponding referendums have been 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). President Theodore Roosevelt, in his "Charter of Democracy" speech to the 1912 Ohio constitutional convention, stated "I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative."

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

  • 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 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).
  • 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 24 U.S. states with constitutionally-defined, citizen-initiated, direct democracy governance components (Zimmerman, December 1999). In the United States, for the most part only one-time majorities are required (simple majority of those voting) to approve any of these components.

In addition, many localities around the U.S. 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.

In the U.S. region of New England, nearly all towns practice a very limited form of home rule, and decide local affairs through the direct democratic process of the town meeting.


Venezuela has been dabbling with direct democracy since its new constitution was approved in 1999. However, this situation has been on for less than ten years, and results are controversial. Still, its constitution does enshrine the right of popular initiative, sets minimal requirements for referenda (a few of which have already been held) and does include the institution of recall for any elected authority (which has been unsuccessfully used against its incumbent president).

Contemporary movements for direct democracy via direct democratic praxis

Some contemporary movements working for direct democracy via direct democratic praxis include:

See also



External links




  • ðÐ ─ German and international dd-portal.


  • Kol1 ─ Movement for Direct Democracy In Israel.
  • MyVote (in Hebrew) ─ Movement for Direct Democracy In Israel.


  • - Association of Direct Democrats
  • ─ Roman Chapter of the Association of Direct Democrats' campaign to present a list of candidates for Rome Province Election to be controlled through an ad-hoc temporary organization of citizens.

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