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Direct democracy, classically termed pure democracy,[1] comprises a form of democracy and theory of civics wherein sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate. Depending on the particular system, this assembly might pass executive motions (decrees), make law, elect and dismiss officials and conduct trials. Where the assembly elected officials, these were executive agents or direct representatives (bound to the will of the people). In a representative democracy, sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people, elected periodically, but otherwise free to advance their own agendas.

It also deals with how citizens are "directly" involved with voting for various laws, instead of voting for representatives to decide for them.

Forms of direct democratic involvement

In American states, and in a number of their political subdivisions, there are six different ways through which citizens can directly approve or reject legislation, and one way that they can directly initiate actions against unpopular politicians without waiting for a regularly scheduled election.

There are three basic forms of direct democracy: (1) initiated legislation, in which citizens entirely initiate and enact new laws and amendments; (2) Referendum, in which citizens react, through forms of activism such as petition drives, to laws passed by their state legislature; and (3) Legislatively referred ballot measures.

For initiatives and legislative referrals, there are two variants--whether the proposed legislation is a constitutional amendment or whether it is a proposed statute. Hence, there is the initiated constitutional amendment and the initiated state statute, and with respective to legislative referrals, there is the legislatively-referred constitutional amendment or the legislatively-referred state statute, with the final disposition of those proposals in the hands of the people.

The veto referendum applies only to statutes.

See also: Forms of direct democracy in the American states.


Recall is considered to be a form of direct democracy, because it involves citizens organizing and collecting signatures to force an election on a politician whose continued service in office they wish to thwart. However, although it can be considered a form of initiative, it is not a form of direct democracy in the same way that initiative and referendum are, since it doesn't involve citizens voting directly on ballot measures.

Arguments for direct democracy

Arguments in favor of direct democracy tend to focus on perceived flaws in the alternative, representative democracy:

  • 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 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 can participate. As a very important and complex occupation, it is only fair that the they are well paid. This can also reduce the risk for corruption.
  • 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 George W. Bush Administration had taken office nearly 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.

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, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. The voter will tend to look after his or her own interest rather than considering the needs and values of a society as a whole. Thus 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. It should be noted that this is a criticism of democracy in general, but is particularly acute for direct democracy. "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.

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 referenda 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).

The principal difference between the Swiss form of direct democracy and the American form of it, is that in the USA a Masonic brotherhood controlled the country when it was formed (50 of 55 signators to the American Constitution were Masons). The Masons still control the American government (there is a far smaller presence of Masons in Switzerland, 8 lodges vs 10,000+ in the USA). Masons assert their influence over America, its politics and governance in many ways, overtly with symbols built into the landscape such as in Washington DC, or with the Statue of Liberty being the best known ones.

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 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." [2] 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 referenda 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, referenda 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.[3].

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, 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].

In 2002, the Populist Party of America was formed to promote the creation of direct democracy in America.


  • 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.
  • Finley, M.I. (1973). Democracy Ancient And Modern. Rutgers University Press.
  • Fotopoulos, Takis (2005). The Multidimensional Crisis and Inclusive Democracy. Gordios, Athens. (English translation from the original Greek) [1]
  • Gerber, Elisabeth R. (1999). The Populist Paradox: Interest Group Influence And The Promise Of Direct Legislation. Princeton University Press.
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman (1999). The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology. University of Oklahoma, Norman (orig. 1991).
  • 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.
  • Köchler, Hans (1995). A Theoretical Examination of the Dichotomy between Democratic Constitutions and Political Reality. University Center Luxemburg.
  • Magleby, David B. (1984). Direct Legislation: Voting On Ballot Propositions In The United States. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • National Conference of State Legislatures, (2004). Recall Of State Officials
  • Polybius (c.150 BC). 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).
  • Trechsel, Alexander H. (2005). Towards a Federal Europe? Special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy, 12(3).
  • 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.

External links


Portions of this article were adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Copyright Notice can be found here.

  1. A. Democracy in World Book Encyclopedia, World Book Inc., 2006. B. Pure democracy entry in Merriam-Webster Dictionary. C. Pure democracy entry in American Heritage Dictionary"
  2. Federalist No. 10
  3. (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2004, Recall Of State Officials)