Who holds the most power in society? Who decides what laws and policies govern our lives? In direct democracy, the people exercise the most power. With roots in ancient history, direct democracy is a system where citizens vote on every issue that affects their lives. There are currently no true direct democracies, but many countries weave pure democratic processes into their systems. In this article, we’ll explore the meaning of direct democracy, present the most important facts, and describe modern examples.
Direct democracy is a political system where citizens make all the decisions on laws, policies, and court decisions. There is no or very little interference from a political elite. No country follows a full direct democracy, but many use instruments like referendums and citizen-initiated ballot measures.
What is direct democracy?
Direct democracy is a form of government where citizens vote on everything. That includes laws, bills, and court decisions. It’s the opposite of a government like an absolute monarchy where a monarch like a queen, king, or emperor possesses unlimited and unchecked power. Direct democracy is also different from a representative democracy, where people vote on who will represent them in government. In a direct democracy, eligible voters serve as the ultimate decision-makers.
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What are the principles of direct democracy? There are five main ones:
In a true direct democracy, all votes are equal. No one’s vote holds more power because of class, gender, race, sexuality, or other characteristics, and no one faces discrimination or limited access to the polls because of any characteristic. What determines a person’s eligibility? It’s varied throughout history, but for democracy to be as pure as possible, the right to vote should be preserved as much as possible. In a direct democracy, voters themselves would decide who is eligible.
In a system like a representative democracy, decisions get made at a federal level without the input of local regions or towns. Ideally, a representative (like those elected in the United States) travels through their district and learns what their constituents think of a specific law or decision, but there’s no direct way for people to participate. In a direct democracy, local decisions hold a lot more importance because the system tends to be decentralized. Small towns, cities, and communities get to vote on issues that affect them directly.
For direct democracy to work, there needs to be transparency. Citizens need to easily access all the information needed to make the most informed decision possible. That means anyone who proposes (or opposes) a new decision – like a law or new policy – should work hard to argue their case clearly, present pros and cons, and suggest further actions that support their viewpoint.
#4. Citizen participation
The success of direct democracy depends on people participating. If only a few people vote on laws that affect everyone, it’s not a true democracy. Limited participation can lead to a minority rule that favors some groups above others, which in turn causes political instability and dissatisfaction. To encourage active citizenship, direct democracies need to make participation as convenient and simple as possible.
While everyone participates in a direct democracy, not everyone is as equally involved in the everyday processes of governing or the implementation of decisions and laws. Those with more responsibilities need to be kept accountable to the people. This is a well-recognized need in representative democracies where people elect proxies to represent their interests. Recall elections, financial regulations, monitoring, and other mechanisms help improve accountability.
What should everyone know about direct democracy?
Direct democracy seems simple on the surface, but there are lots of interesting details and nuances about this form of government. Here are the five most important facts to know:
#1. Direct democracy has ancient origins
The concept of direct democracy is believed to have started in ancient Athens, Greece. Known as “demokratia,” which means “rule by the people,” this system established a democracy that included representatives from Athenian tribes, lottery-selected jurors, and a sovereign body that wrote laws and foreign policy. Most of Athenian society was excluded (such as women and slaves), so even though democracy began in ancient Athens, it bears little resemblance to what modern people would call “direct democracy.”
#2. Direct democracy can empower society
When people have a direct say in the decisions that affect their lives, they’re more likely to feel empowered. This can encourage them to take more active stances on issues, participate more fully in democratic processes, and form stronger bonds with those around them. With the equality, transparency, and accountability that come with true direct democracies, nations can also enjoy better social cohesion.
#3. Direct democracy can lead to voter fatigue
While voting on every decision has its benefits, it can also be exhausting. Needing to educate yourself on every decision laid before you takes a lot of time, and if you’re being asked to vote on every issue facing society, it’s tempting to withdraw from the process. Only those with the energy, motivation, and time to actively participate end up staying engaged, which undermines the point of direct democracy.
#4. Direct democracy doesn’t lead to utopia
There are many issues with the various forms of government in use today. With so much corruption and betrayal from politicians, giving power back to the people can sound appealing. However, it’s important to recognize that no perfect government exists. Direct democracy has many benefits, but it won’t usher a nation into a utopia. Things like misinformation, the power of special interest groups, voter fatigue, and other issues can lead to laws that negatively impact society, weaken democracy, and harm minority rights.
#5. Democracy has been sliding in recent years
There are no full direct democracies operating today, but democracy as a whole has been declining recently. According to the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, half of the world’s democratic governments are in decline. Problems include restrictions on freedom of expression, distrust in the legitimacy of elections, and a rise in authoritarianism. For the fifth year in a row, more countries are moving toward authoritarianism than toward democracy.
What does direct democracy look like?
No country uses direct democracy, but many take inspiration from it or utilize elements of direct democratic processes. Here are five examples:
The Swiss Confederation is a semi-direct democracy, which means while it’s technically a representative democracy, it uses direct democracy instruments. How? Switzerland has 26 cantons, or regions. There is a federal government, but each canton is sovereign with an independent legislature, executive, court system, constitution, and police force. The referendum system uses a direct democracy. Whenever certain laws are passed by parliament, they go to a popular vote where all citizens over 18 are eligible to vote. There are also optional referendums, where any citizen can challenge a law approved by parliament. After at least 50,000 signatures are collected within 100 days of the parliament’s decision (or if eight cantons support the referendum), a popular vote takes place.
The United States
26 states (and Washington D.C.) have initiative and/or veto referendum processes. The process varies by state, but in general, these states let citizens propose new statutes and constitutional amendments. Citizens can also target laws passed by the legislature and ask the public if they want to uphold or repeal them. In California, a citizen or group of citizens must first write the text of their proposed law and then submit the draft to the Attorney General for an official title and summary. Initiative petitions are then circulated. If the petition gets enough signatures from registered voters, it’s turned in to the county election officials for verification. Qualifying initiatives are then put to a vote. In 2022, California voted on several ballot measures, including a citizen-initiated ballot measure that required funding for K-12 art and music education. Voters voted in favor.
There are four legally-binding referendums in Italy, but the popular referendum is the best example of direct democracy in the country. These referendums are used to abolish an existing law (or part of it) because the Constitution doesn’t allow referendums that adopt new legislation. Only certain laws can be voted on by popular referendum; tax laws, budget laws, amnesties and pardons, and laws that authorize international treaty ratifications aren’t eligible. Popular referendums can only be requested by five Regional Councils or 500,000 Italian voters.
Liechtenstein is a constitutional hereditary monarchy, but it tries to balance power between the prince and its people. The prince is the head of state, while the prime minister and head of government are accountable to parliament. The Constitution establishes elections and popular votes, so citizens have the power to bring initiatives and referendums to a vote. Every law passed by parliament can also be put to a public vote unless the issue is too urgent. In 2023, a group collected signatures to ban gambling, but when parliament voted against the ban, it had to go to a referendum vote. The public also voted against the ban, so casinos and gambling remain legal.
The UK uses a parliamentary system, but some decisions are decided by referendums. There is no constitutional requirement to hold a national referendum, so referendums are rare. In fact, there have only been three national referendums. In 1975, the UK held a referendum on whether it should remain in the organization now known as the European Union. In 2011, the public rejected a change in the voting system, and in 2016, the public approved Brexit, which led to the UK leaving the EU. Given Brexit’s negative impact on many people, it’s become an example of how direct democracy can harm a nation.